South Africa has ordered an inquest into the murder in 2014 of Col Patrick Karegeya, a former head of Rwanda’s External Intelligence, a move that could delay the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Relations between the two soured after Col Karegeya’s murder and a second attempt on the life of former army Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa in March 2014, when South Africa openly rebuked Rwanda and expelled three Rwandan diplomats. Rwanda retaliated by sending home six South African diplomats.
In 2016, both countries started a process to restore ties, which has seen the appointments of diplomats from both countries. However, issuance of visas to Rwandans seeking to travel to South Africa is yet to resume, even after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared in March this year that the issue would be resolved immediately.
More than seven months later, The EastAfrican has learned that South Africa’s prosecution and elite police force known as The Hawks have requested the ministry of Home Affairs to hold off the resumption of visa issuance until the inquest is completed.
Col Karegeya, who was 53 at the time, was killed on January 1, 2014 in a room at the plush Michelangelo Towers hotel in Johannesburg. He had fled to South Africa in 2007 and was seeking asylum. He was a member of the exiled opposition group Rwanda National Congress (RNC).
Fingers pointed to Kigali after some of the individuals suspected of participating in the plot to kill Karegeya were reportedly found to have links to the Rwandan government but Rwanda denied the accusations. His family and political allies maintain Kigali is responsible for his murder.
Last Thursday, Randburg magistrate Jeremiah Matopa announced that the inquest into Col Karegeya’s death would begin on January 16, next year.
According to South African media, Chief Prosecutor Yusuf Baba told the court that he had lined up more than 30 witnesses to take part in the inquest.
“I intend to call every witness in this matter. This is a very sensitive case dealing with international relations,” the prosecutor said.
The inquest is expected to last 15 days but the prosecutor warned that it could last longer in an effort to establish who killed Col Karegeya, who at the time was a top critic of President Paul Kagame. The witnesses will include the staff of the hotel in which he was killed with a curtain cord.
In Kigali, the South African High Commissioner to Rwanda, George Nkosinati Twala, met the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Richard Sezibera.
According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, “they discussed bilateral relations and co-operation in various fields.”
Mr Twala, who is also Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Rwanda, in a recent interview with The EastAfrican said that his country plans to resume issuing visas to Rwandans but admitted that the issues of Rwandan dissidents in South Africa remains an issue.
The South African envoy said the visa issue was a ‘technical matter’ that is yet to be resolved.
Rwanda maintains that the existence of wanted Rwandan dissidents in South Africa, including Lt. Gen Nyamwasa, threatens relations between the two countries because they are allegedly involved in activities to destabilise Rwanda.
“Clearly it is a problem,” Mr Twala said, adding that the issue “remains a problem because there are allegations that they were involved in activities that are incompatible with their refugee status.”
He said that South Africa wrote to the said individuals warning them that they have to be careful about their utterances because while South Africa respects refugee conventions, it cannot be seen as a country offering sanctuary to armed struggle movements or any other activities meant to destabilise or overturn legitimate governments elsewhere.
Mr Twala also said that at some point, South African had written to the Rwandan exiles asking them to go to a third country but the process is complicated and requires a lot of negotiations.
According to reports, RNC members in South Africa, including Lt Gen Nyamwasa and David Batenga, a nephew to Col Karegeya, have been consistently pressing South African authorities to carry out an inquest into Karegeya’s murder.
Mr Kayumba has escaped two attempts on his life, including one in March 2014, which triggered the diplomatic row. He also blames Kigali.
Mr Twala insists that he doesn’t think the issue of dissidents will stand in the way of diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries, initiated by President Ramaphosa and President Paul Kagame.
“We will be able to discuss and resolve these issues,” Mr Twala told The EastAfrican.
Many ordinary Rwandans still cannot travel to South Africa unless they have service passports despite the South African mission in Kigali saying it facilitates those with urgent need to travel to the southern African country.
The envoy said that what is clear is that the current administration in South Africa has expressed desire to fully restore ties.