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Where does South Africa fit in with Congo's elections?

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Before arriving in Kisangani on Thursday evening, opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi spent much of the first two weeks of the election campaign in South Africa. What was he up to?

According to the man himself, he was seeking political and financial support from the ruling African National Congress and businessmen. He reportedly met at least once with Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary-General of the ANC, and by Thursday could boast that he had been able to rent a DC-3, a small passenger jet and a helicopter. These assets are key, given the dearth of commercial jets in the Congo (the UDPS says the government is hogging commercial air assets, others say there this is just due to the lack of aircraft since Hewa Bora's license was suspended in July this year, leaving only CAA flying domestically). 

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This has set off speculation in domestic and diplomatic circles that Tshisekedi has received support from President Jacob Zuma's government. Some also point to the fact that the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) is fielding more election observers than the EU, the AU and Carter Center, and the head of this mission is Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, wife of Charles Nqakula, who is a close adviser to President Zuma and his envoy to Sudan and Zimbabwe (and previously Burundi).

But it's not so simple. After all, the same day Tshisekedi flew to Kisangani, South African authorities announced that a new deal would be signed today (Nov. 12) on the Grand Inga hydroelectric dam between their national electricity provider Eskom and the Congolese electricity company, which could provide up to 40,000 MW of electricity, the largest such dam in the world. But this is merely an MoU, which may lead to a formal agreement in six months, and negotiations have been ongoing since 2004 on similar projects. Despite the tentative nature of the agreement, President Zuma will be in Lubumbashi today to officially sign the MoU.

Was it merely a coincidence that Tshisekedi was in South Africa just before the deal was signed with Kabila? If Zuma did provide support to the opposition, how can this be squared with a trip that will be interpreted as an endorsement of Kabila's candidacy?

Some analysts I spoke with suggested that the South Africans were using Tshisekedi as leverage to squeeze a deal out of the Congolese (even though the Congolese could always renege, as they have in the past). Others say that Tshisekedi was really in South Africa for medical treatment (speculation about his health never abates), and his aircraft were not provided by Pretoria after all.

Relations between Presidents Zuma and Kabila have been through many twists and turns. Some of the powerbrokers around Kabila, in particular Katumba Mwanke, were reportedly closer to the Thabo Mbeki wing of the ANC during his leadership struggle against Jacob Zuma in 2009, and were viewed with some suspicion when Zuma won this struggle.

Shortly afterwards, however, news broke that two hitherto unknown companies in the British Virgin Islands, Caprikat and Foxwhelp, had obtained oil blocks in the Congo previously held by Irish company Tullow. Who was listed as the representatives of the two companies? None other than Khulubuse Zuma, the president's nephew, and Michael Hulley, the president's lawyer (who was promoted this week to be his official legal counsel). Possibly also involved – albeit indirectly – was Tokyo Sekwale, a prominent ANC businessman and minister. 

Were these oil blocks peace offerings by Kabila to the South Africans? It isn't clear, but one of the other companies that lost out in this deal was Divine Inspiration, which allegedly had links to the Mbeki-faction of the ANC.

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South Africa is a key partner for the Congolese government. It is the largest economy in the region and the base for many of the mining companies operating in the Congo. 

So who are they backing? I couldn't say, and obviously some of this is speculation. But it wouldn't be too bizarre if they were backing more than one horse. Angola (Pretoria biggest competitor in the region) allegedly made a similar move earlier this year, when they provided some support to Vital Kamerhe (or strategically leaked information in this regard). Shortly afterwards, the Congolese government announced that they would hold off on pursuing their claims to offshore oil blocks – that are currently being managed by Angola – until 2014.

– Jason Stearns blogs about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region at Congo Siasa.