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Time plight of Saharawis was brought to the fore

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Shannon Ebrahim
As South Africans we can’t cherry pick our issues. If we care about the freedom and self-determination of the Palestinians, we cannot care any less about the people of Western Sahara.
Just as Madiba said when he was president that our freedom would not be complete without the freedom of the Palestinians, so President Cyril Ramaphosa said this week: “The gains of our democracy cannot be complete while the Saharawi people’s yearning for freedom and justice is not realised.”
It seems our basket of revolutionary causes never empties.
The oppression of the Saharawis has gone on for decades, but has somehow failed to capture international headlines or the imagination of the world’s solidarity groups.
Africa’s last colonial outpost seems to have largely become a forgotten conflict, which is primarily referred to inside the halls of the AU, the European parliament, the UN general assembly or the International Court of Justice.
There are no official Boycott, Divestment or Sanctions campaigns against Morocco as the illegal occupier of Western Sahara, and no sustained demonstrations in capitals around the globe.
Civil society pressure against the foreign policies of Western governments that cosy up to the Moroccan king is minimal.
It just so happens that Moroccan tagines are one of my culinary favourites, as are its lanterns, silver tea sets, and mosaic furniture.
So it has taken some restraint to take a principled decision not to go and walk the streets of ancient Fez, and sip mint tea to the sound of the azaan at sunset.
It was what black South Africans would have expected in the 1980s - that avid golf players would have had enough of a conscience to restrain themselves from playing at Sun City until the masses in South Africa had won their freedom.
But how many South Africans even realise that revolutionary consciousness should really preclude them from holidaying in Marrakesh?
At an official level anyway, South Africa continues to be the torch bearer for a struggle that is mired in indifference. But however “unsexy” the Saharawi struggle may seem, it is to our credit that it takes such strong positions on principle and in the name of human rights.
When Ramaphosa delivered his ANC January 8 statement, he specifically referred to Western Sahara as one of the ANC’s foreign policy priorities. As president, he is living up to that commitment.
This week, he hosted Brahim Ghali, president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, in Pretoria. Few may have taken cognisance of the significance of this visit, which was cloaked in revolutionary solidarity, no less than if the president of the Palestinian Authority had been ushered down the red carpet.
Ramaphosa didn’t hesitate to emphatically say to his counterpart, “Our freedom and your freedom are indivisible.”
The two agreed to deepen relations and strengthen co-operation, even going as far as South Africa pledging humanitarian assistance to help the Saharawis in refugee camps.
Ramaphosa also expressed concern for ongoing human rights abuses by the Moroccan authorities.
At a policy level, the two presidents agreed that with the admission of Morocco into the AU, it has an obligation to adhere to the principles and goals enshrined in the Constitutive Act, especially the need to respect colonial borders as they existed at the time of independence.
In January, the AU passed a resolution calling on both parties to engage without preconditions in direct and serious talks to end conflict.
The continued delay in finding a solution has dire humanitarian consequences for the people, and is an impediment to greater regional integration and security co-operation in the region.
South Africa supports the AU and the UN’s call for an end to the illegal exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of the Western Sahara, and discourages foreign companies from engaging in such activities.
Our position is that the AU must implement its decision to lead an international campaign against any companies and multinationals involved in such exploitative practices.
More recently, we managed to turn our solidarity with the cause into somewhat of a tangible boycott.
The South African government is not in favour of the SA Football Association backing Morocco to host the 2026 World Cup, and this week the council decided not to back the country. This means Morocco won’t have a united African bid behind them, despite having tried to buy the support of Africans.
The Moroccans were relying on the Confederation of African Football president Ahmad Ahmad to support their bid.
They had backed Ahmad with generous grants for CAF events to ensure all 54 African states would vote for them. It seems their campaign has failed.
As they say, the struggle continues.
* Shannon Ebrahim is group foreign editor.
062/SPS/The Sunday Independent