Foreign affairs ministers from Rwanda and South Africa have been tasked with ending a decade-long political stalemate, fuelled by South Africa hosting exiled Rwandan dissents.
Last week, South Africa’s Minister for International Relations and Co-operation, Naledi Pandor hosted Rwanda’s Vincent Biruta, as part of efforts to mend the broken relations between Pretoria and Kigali.
The meeting saw the establishment of a Joint Mechanism Committee chaired by both Dr Pandor and Dr Biruta to guide and manage the reengagement process between their two countries.
“We have many challenges across the continent and I believe that South Africa and Rwanda can work together to resolve them,” Dr Biruta said.
Since 2019, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have attempted to mend relations and restore full diplomatic relations in vain, partly due to vocal South Africa-based lobbies, including AfriForum, a civil rights organisation that mobilises Afrikaners, Afrikaans-speaking people and other minority groups in South Africa.
Specifically, Gerrie Nel, a private prosecutor who leads AfriForum's private prosecution unit and represents the family of Rwanda’s former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, who was killed in South Africa in 2013, has continued to pressure the South African government to extradite four Rwandan nationals suspected of killing Col Karegeya.
His claims gained ground in April 2019, after a Randburg magistrate instructed South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority to pronounce itself on whether it would prosecute the alleged suspects. The court order came after the Gauteng Director of Public Prosecutions attempted to launch an inquest into the death in June 2018, saying prosecution of the alleged Rwandan suspects would not be possible, a move that fuelled speculation that the South African government was more keen on protecting its relationship with Rwanda than to pursue the case.
Following the Randburg magistrate’s decision, Mr Nel told South African media that “the investigating officer in the case had indicated in testimony to the court that no steps were taken as the relationship between South Africa and Rwanda played a role in the decision not to track down the suspects.”
Despite the ongoing court proceedings, presidents Ramaphosa and Kagame have maintained communication, including meeting several times, most recently on the sidelines of the Summit on the Financing of African Economies hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in May.
It now appears that the Heads of State agreed at this meeting to forge ahead with mending relations between the two countries, which could lead to full restoration of diplomatic relations.
South Africa says the work of the joint committee is to restore and normalise diplomatic relations.
Dr Pandor said the latest meeting “was long overdue, not only because we were instructed by our presidents [Cyril Ramaphosa and Paul Kagame] over a year ago to meet but also because the people of South Africa and Rwanda expect us to meet and strengthen co-operation between our two countries.”
Ismael Buchanan, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Rwanda, sees the recent developments in the Rwanda-South Africa relations as an opportunity for both countries to build co-operation after years of strained relations.
"Both countries can co-operate, especially in the health and education sectors. The next step will be having representatives in both countries," he said.
The diplomatic standoff between the two countries stemmed from Kigali accusing South Africa of harbouring Rwandan dissidents opposed to President Kagame’s rule and believed to be attempting to overthrow the government.
Matters escalated in 2014 when South Africa expelled two Rwandan diplomats in connection with an assassination attempt on former Rwandan army chief Gen Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in Johannesburg. Shortly after the two Rwandans were given 48 hours to leave South Africa, Kigali hit back by expelling six South African envoys. Later, Mr Nyamwasa was granted political refugee status in South Africa.
Already, intelligence personnel attached to the Rwandan embassy were being fingered in the 2013 murder of Karegeya, a former colonel and spymaster of President Kagame. At the time, President Jacob Zuma was in power.
Mr Nyamwasa, the leader of the opposition party Rwanda National Congress, is classified as a renegade leader and his organisation is viewed as a terrorist group. Kigali says South Africa is providing a base for Mr Nyamwasa to conduct his subversive activities against the Rwandan government. Mr Nyamwasa has survived three assassination attempts in South Africa.