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South Africa, Bringing the Continent Inside the Security Council


Top members of the South African delegation to the UN, from left, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, political coordinator; Jerry Matthews Matjila, ambassador; Kgaugelo Mogashoa, deputy political coordinator, at their press briefing, Dec. 1, 2020. The country is president of the Security Council this month, as it also wraps up its term. 

In the last hurrah of its two-year term, South Africa happens to be president of the Security Council in December, so it is making the most of its final month by holding a debate on the all-important United Nations-African Union relationship. South Africa is also chairing the African Union this year, until February 2021, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will virtually attend the Security Council debate, on Dec. 4.

“It converges very nicely, presiding over the Council but also still being the chairperson of the African Union,” Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the political coordinator for the South African mission to the UN, told PassBlue.

“So we will try to focus that debate, for instance, on how the UN-AU cooperation has contributed to conflict prevention, also to the resolution of conflict. We will be inviting some heads of state from the countries that are on the agenda of the Council to tell us, from their perspective, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked? Where can we do things better? How has the UN-AU cooperation contributed towards silencing the guns on the continent, one of the flagship projects that we have?”

As usual, country-specific issues are also scheduled for the December program of work, but crises may also come up. Dr. Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Pretoria, said in an interview about South Africa’s Council presidency that the issue of Ethiopia’s conflict in the Tigray region will be hard to avoid, “especially given that Addis Ababa is the home of the African Union. What we’ve seen in Ethiopia in the past couple of weeks, I think is really concerning, and Ethiopia, in its approach to the conflict, has been very reluctant to engage with the African Union.”

The Council held a closed-door meeting on developments in Ethiopia in late November, but nothing is further planned, Ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjila of South Africa told the media on Dec. 1 at the UN. An AU-led mediating team met with President Abiy Ahmed Ali last week, but he rebuffed its offer to help negotiate the crisis. At least 40,000 people have fled Ethiopia for refuge in Sudan from the fighting since Nov. 4. The UN is working to clarify the humanitarian situation in Tigray.

Another thematic meeting organized by South Africa in December is a focus on promoting and strengthening the rule of law and the UN’s cooperation with the International Court of Justice (ICJ). “That is going to look at specifically how the two organizations, the two organs, can cooperate better in terms of the resolution of conflicts, in terms of using the capacities of the ICJ to help resolve crises to help sustain peace and to prevent conflict,” van Schalkwyk told PassBlue.

South Africa’s last month as a Council member also gives it a chance to review its accomplishments over the last two years and the major challenges it encountered. This is South Africa’s third elected term since 2008.

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“I think what was challenging was the relationship between the P2 [China and Russia] and P3 [Britain, France and the United States], and also the contentious nature of the debate, and the approach of how countries work with one another,” van Schalkwyk explained. “Hopefully, that improves, because if it continues, it will be difficult if the Council remains as divided as it is, at that level.”

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more details on South Africa’s goals in December, with insights from Dr. Mbete, download the latest episode of PassBlue’s podcast UN-Scripted on SoundCloud or on Patreon. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.)

If you’d like to know more about Ambassador Matjila, you can listen to last year’s episode or read his profile.

Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Dec. 1, 2020. He said of the Security Council, “What was challenging was the relationship between the P2” — China and Russia — “and the P3,” Britain, France and the United States. 

Political Coordinator: Marthinus van Schalkwyk
Languages: English, Afrikaans, French
Education: B.A., international politics and political science, University of Pretoria (1992); B.A., international relations, University of Pretoria (1988).

His story, briefly: Marthinus van Schalkwyk was born in Phalaborwa, a mining town in what now is part of Limpopo Province in South Africa, close to the border with Mozambique. He has spent most of his career in South Africa’s foreign affairs ministry, focusing on international organizations, and has been posted in Brussels, The Hague and, now, New York City.

“I think being on the Council was really a privilege,” van Schalkwyk told PassBlue in an interview recently. “As a diplomat, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to do something like this, except if your country is a permanent member. I saw it as a privilege. It was very interesting to see how the Council works on the inside, and you discover it’s not as awesome and fantastical as you think it is when standing on the outside.”

After graduating from the University of Pretoria, van Schalkwyk got his first posting, in Brussels at the European Union, which was then called the European Community. When he was next posted to The Hague, he worked as his country’s representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

“I was always working on multilateralism,” van Schalkwyk said. “I’ve done a lot of different types of multilateral work, from disarmament and nonproliferation, or socioeconomic issues. Before I came to New York, I was the director responsible for social development issues in the multilateral field. I dealt with the Population Development Commission on social development, which also dealt with the World Health Organization. And then Unesco in terms of educational cultural issues. So a whole range of different issues. This is actually my first opportunity to work directly on the Security Council.”

Van Schalkwyk is heading back to Pretoria, South Africa’s executive capital, shortly after the country’s term on the Council ends. He is married with two daughters. He talked to PassBlue on Nov. 24. His remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Has the A3+1 alliance — the African elected members on the Council plus the elected member Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — been effective? I think it was very effective, it was something that we really committed to, and we want to see it work. It doesn’t mean that you agree on everything and, all of a sudden, all of your foreign policy interests are aligned 100 percent. . . . You’ve got the solidarity and support for one another; it helps so much to approach an issue as a group, especially because there are so many issues on the Council’s agenda that focus on Africa.

As much as you represent your country, you also represent those that voted for you and those countries on the continent that voted for you. We always take the approach of looking at what’s best for the continent, what’s best for an African country? How can we assist? How can we help? In that context, I think it also worked very well. You don’t agree on everything, and you’re not supposed to, because we are not like the European Union, where we have this tight set-up in being very formalized. It’s a looser kind of association, but you cannot lose yourself from the continent. That’s what’s always behind us. It’s grown in the second year as well. With Niger and Tunisia [the other current African members], we get better at it, if you look at the number of statements that we made. Also, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines joined us, and that has been another plus.

What files have been hard for the A3 Council members to agree on? Are some more contentious than others? I wouldn’t say “contentious,” so much as it is we have a very specific intent. If you look at, say, Libya, and with the current members, Niger and Tunisia, are direct neighbors, so you tend to take the lead from them because the neighbor directly affected is normally the country that knows better . . . and in Libya, we gave each other a little bit more space. Western Sahara is really important for South Africa. It’s a very important foreign policy objective for us in terms of decolonization, but that’s not necessarily the same interest that Tunisia might have or Niger. So on this issue, we gave each other a little bit more space, but on many other issues, we were very close. Most of the other issues on the continent, whether you speak of South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, even the Middle East, we were very, very good. The African issues, we were very much together; we didn’t really coordinate that closely, for instance, on the DPRK [North Korea], Iran, those kinds of issues, which are a bit further away from our direct area of interest. . . .

What is the future of the Force Intervention Brigade, the first combat unit to be authorized to operate in a UN peacekeeping mission; in this case, the Democratic Republic of the Congo? I think the Force Intervention Brigade has been, from our perspective, a game-changer in assisting the UN system and its mandates; [it] was more agile, able to move quickly to address some of the conflict situations more robustly, which wasn’t necessarily possible for the UN. So it played quite a strong complementary role to what the UN was bringing, and because it is a SADC [Southern African Development Community] initiative, it showed that the subregional cooperation with the UN can work, it’s strong. It wasn’t without its difficulties and challenges, but broadly speaking, it worked well, and it made quite a substantial contribution to peace and security. In the eastern DRC, it’s still an area that is very volatile, very difficult in bringing peace over the past year or so. There have been incidents of killings and attacks, and it just shows that we need to constantly work on socioeconomic development, also making sure that there is peace and security.

Overall, the Force Intervention Brigade set a precedent, but I think it was positive in the sense of giving the UN a lot of credibility and substance to the implementation of Chapter 8 of the Charter, the UN cooperating between subregional organizations and regional organizations. You find that there’s a lot of focus sometimes that says this didn’t work, but sometimes what gets lost is the positive contributions that it made and that it brought a new era in how such cooperation can take place.

How frustrated are you that a UN special envoy in Libya has still not been appointed to replace the “acting” envoy and that African candidates did not get the post? Libya is extremely complex. There are so many countries involved from outside of the continent, which makes it extremely complex and difficult. I think the biggest focus and frustrations for the African members on the Council was that the people who were dying and suffering were the Libyans, and I think that was our first and foremost interest to stop the suffering.

In terms of the different interests that played themselves out, you see, for instance, the arms embargoes that were not adhered to, even by those that are on the Council, was very frustrating. But to the credit of the [peace] process and the efforts to have the parties come together, that has happened. The point that we as African members made in terms of appointment of envoys from Africa is, we’ve got a billion people on the continent and there are some fantastic leaders and very talented people. We could not see why if you have an African conflict and you want to appoint a mediator or envoy or special representative, why these can’t come from Africa. Again, there are some talented, wonderful people that have served as prime ministers, that have served as presidents, as leaders. So I think we were voicing those aspirations to say we have the knowledge, we have the people, we have the leadership. It was frustrating; he [UN Secretary-General António Guterres] proposed some very good African leaders, former foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra [of Algeria] and then former Foreign Minister Hannah Tette from Ghana. These would have both been wonderful. Former Minister Tette, a woman in a leadership position like this, would have been fantastic, especially when peace and security were really, really pushing as a priority for South Africa. But in the end, we also came out strongly. We made the point about that; unfortunately, it didn’t work out, and you need to have everybody on board in the Council to make this work.

We are very happy with the candidate [Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process], and we actually are a bit sorry to see him leave. We would hope that that position where he is in currently gets filled very quickly because that is another priority area for us, the Middle East. [Update: Mladenov’s appointment still has not been confirmed.]

Generally speaking, this all goes back to how the African Union was ignored when the bombing of Libya took place by NATO, and that is still a very sore, contentious point for the continent, where, on the eve of the bombing, there was a high-level group that was basically mandated by the African Union on its way to Tripoli to mediate the process, and the bombing started. It started from outside the continent, so it’s really something, which is still a problem, foreign interference, how that takes place, still plays out in very subtle ways. But we are very honest and candid with each other about that, and we hope we’re making headway by being open and candid. We exchange views with each other, with Africans and non-Africans in the Council on this, and we are very clear where we are. It has to be done through cooperation, and that’s what we aspire to in the Council’s work to solve these issues. We trust that our views have been taken into consideration; and moving forward, when we do see these types of appointments, that Africans will be placed in such positions where they can contribute to bringing peace and security to the continent.

Head of State: President Cyril Ramaphosa
Foreign Affairs Minister: Naledi Pandor
Type of Government: Parliamentary representative republic
Year South Africa Joined the UN: South Africa was a founding member in 1945; it was suspended by the General Assembly for its apartheid policies in 1974 and readmitted in 1994, after the country dismantled apartheid.
Years on the Security Council: 2007-2008, 2011-2012, 2019-2020
Population: 57.7 million
GDP per capita: $6,374


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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South Africa, Bringing the Continent Inside the Security Council
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Paulette Austin
Paulette Austin
2 years ago

The bombing of Libya again reflected the interference of “big powers” in an oil-rich country, at the detriment of the local population. Gaddafi had always been receptive to African workers inter alia. The OAU should have been given leverage to intervene among the disputing factions.The refugee problem should be placed squarely at the foot of these “big powers.”

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