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Who’s really in charge in Venezuela?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will have the support of South Africa at the United Nations Security Council. This was confirmed by South Africa’s International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu in Delhi on Saturday, on the sidelines of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first state visit to India. Sisulu also clarified South Africa’s approach to the political instability in Zimbabwe, calling the state’s recent crackdown on protesters “completely unacceptable”.

“South Africa’s position is that we recognise the duly elected, democratically elected President of Venezuela until such time as he steps down, or until such time as there is an election.”

With these words, Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Lindiwe Sisulu confirmed on Saturday that South Africa is backing incumbent Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in the current power struggle playing out in Caracas.

“Anything else we find irregular, and that is a position we are going to put across at the UN Security Council,” Sisulu said.

By “anything else”, Sisulu was referring to the attempt by Maduro’s rival Juan Guaidó to be recognised as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

South Africa’s stance on this issue will put them at loggerheads with the USA, Canada and a number of South American countries which have already announced their support for Guaidóaido’s attempted ouster of Maduro

It is consistent, however, with South Africa’s general opposition to the notion of regime changes executed outside of electoral processes, regardless of their (i)llegitimacy.

Explaining the decision in Delhi – where Sisulu is currently part of a delegation of Cabinet Ministers accompanying President Cyril Ramaphosa on his first state visit to India – the Dirco Minister said that she was in possession of a “full report” on the political crisis in Venezuela and that South Africa’s representative to the UN Jerry Matjila had been briefed accordingly.

With South Africa’s foreign policy decisions set to come under increasing scrutiny now that the country has taken up its seat on the UN Security Council, Sisulu reiterated on Saturday that its UN votes will now be decided on a “case by case” basis. She said that this was as a result of South Africa’s contentious handling of the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar in November 2018.

“We came into an unfortunate position when we abstained on the matter of Myanmar,” Sisulu said.

South Africa’s decision to abstain on voting on a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was widely slammed. Sisulu subsequently ordered Pretoria’s UN representatives to reverse their stance on the matter.

In Delhi, Sisulu acknowledged retrospectively that the decision to abstain on Myanmar did not fit the circumstances. Since then, she said, she has told South Africa’s diplomats to feel free to rouse her on the phone in the middle of the night if necessary to discuss such choices more fully.

“They will not have carte blanche to vote on issues like these,” Sisulu said – adding that the Myanmar bungle was perhaps “needed” in order to prompt a more considered approach to UN voting on the matter of country-specific human rights abuses.

But what about Zimbabwe? In the wake of January’s brutal crackdown by police on protesters opposing the price of fuel, together with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration’s internet shutdown, Dirco was once again criticized for a statement announcing only that it was “monitoring the situation” and was “confident that the measures being taken by the Zimbabwean government will resolve the situation”.

On Saturday, Sisulu clarified that this statement did not reflect the full extent of the South African government’s engagement with the situation in Zimbabwe.

“That particular statement was aimed at indicating to yourselves that we are seized with the matter of Zimbabwe,” Sisulu said.

“We are constantly in touch with Zimbabwe. If we are not having direct meetings, we’re on the phone trying to see how we can help Zimbabwe.”

Sisulu described the heavy-handed treatment of Zimbabwean protesters by security forces as “completely unacceptable”, and suggested that South Africa “might want to invest in giving them non-lethal ways of crowd management”.

The Dirco Minister added: “Loss of life in any way is not justified”.

As for the Zimbabwean government’s internet shutdown, which the country’s high court ruled illegal, Sisulu said: “If they are wrong, I hope the necessary sanction will be put on them to ensure that there is open communication with the world.

But she also reiterated the call for international sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe during the regime of former President Robert Mugabe to be lifted.

“We do want to find normality in Zimbabwe,” Sisulu said. “The people of Zimbabwe have suffered enough.” DM

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