JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - While Libya’s neighbours rush to recognise rebels who ousted Muammar Gaddafi, regional powerhouse South Africa is blocking the release of Tripoli’s frozen millions to them.
The policy reflects Pretoria’s strong ties to Libya’s former strongman that date back to the anti-Apartheid struggle, and frustration that Western intervention, not African mediation under the African Union, has again proven decisive on the continent.
South Africa has for weeks blocked a request by the United States to the U.N. Security Council to make hundreds of millions of dollars in Libyan assets available for civilian and humanitarian purposes.
The United States and Britain have piled diplomatic pressure on President Jacob Zuma’s government to remove its objection to unfreezing the Libyan funds and hand over large sums of money to Libya’s rebel leaders.
Britain’s Defence Minister Liam Fox urged South Africa to drop its objections to releasing the funds on Thursday.
“I think there will be huge moral pressure on South Africa. They wanted the world at one point to stand with them against apartheid. I think they now need to stand with the Libyan people,” he told BBC radio.
South Africa — a leading member of the African Union — says it is concerned that funding the rebel government implies recognising Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), something not yet done by the AU.
“I personally think it is a misguided position,” said Allister Sparks, an independent political analyst.
The AU’s Peace and Security Council is due to meet in Ethiopia on Friday and the situation in Libya will be discussed.
Gaddafi was one of the main driving forces behind the creation of the AU which consists of 54 African countries.
Zuma spearheaded a mediation effort by the AU but two personal visits to Libya by the South African leader this year failed to produce a tangible outcome.
The AU’s perception is that it has been ignored over Libya by the West, said Petrus de Kock, a researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs.
“The AU feel that they were sidelined very early on in the conflict in Libya. Now there is uncertainty within the AU over whether they will recognise the rebel council as the government,” De Kock said.
South Africa, despite voting for the U.N. resolution authorising military intervention in Libya to protect civilians,
has become a fierce critic of the NATO bombings, which Pretoria said was aimed at “regime change”.
The country’s Deputy President Kgalame Motlanthe told parliament on Wednesday the International Criminal Court should investigate possible human rights violations by NATO as a result of the alliance’s bombing raids in Libya.
The New Age newspaper, owned by businessmen close to Zuma’s ruling African National Congress, said this may be an indication that relations between South Africa and Libya’s NTC will be cold.
During apartheid Libya was one of the first countries to offer support to the ANC, then fighting an armed struggle against the white-minority government, and the ANC maintained close ties to Gaddafi.
Gaddafi’s first trip abroad after sanctions against Libya were suspended in 1999 was to South Africa in the final days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. Mandela was fond of referring to Gaddafi as “My Brother Leader”.
Gaddafi’s ties to the ANC and other African countries could in part explain South Africa’s opposition to releasing funds to the rebels, De Kock said.
“Gaddafi has had huge influence across the continent. It was four decades of engagement and you can’t just wipe that away.”
“The weight of time and the weight of developments in Libya will force the South African government and others to ultimately recognise them (NTC),” De Kock said.
The funds the U.S. requested to be unfrozen were not be used for military purposes, and of the $1.5 billion, $500 million would go directly to international humanitarian organisations. South Africa said it would not object to the $500 million going to aid organisations.
British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Zuma by phone on Thursday and welcomed his support of the release of the $500 million for humanitarian needs, Cameron’s office said.
“The leaders agreed that the African Union needs to take swift decisions at their summit in Addis Ababa ... on the unfreezing of further assets,” it added in a statement.
Political analyst Sparks said South Africa’s transition to democracy would not have been possible if it were not for the international sanctions imposed against the apartheid government.
“There is something terribly hypocritical about this. I would have hoped South Africa’s primary concern would have stemmed from humanitarian considerations rather than haggling over the detail of the resolution that led to NATO bombings”.