25/05/2017 11:59 SAST | Updated 25/05/2017 14:20 SAST

'Africa's Last Colony' -- The Forgotten Sahrawi Struggle Against Morocco

International activist Catherine Constantinides says South Africans need to pay attention to the struggle for a decolonised Western Sahara.

Catherine Constantinides


"This is a story of an African state in exile, a cause and people forgotten, and the refugee camp in which they have lived for 41 years."

A state in perpetual limbo, Western Sahara is the "last remaining colony in Africa", according to South African activist Catherine Constantinides.

The disputed territory, roughly twice the size of the Free State province, has been listed by the United Nation as a non-self-governing territory for over half a century amid a decades-long stalement between contending claimants of the land -- namely Morocco and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi political movement opposing Moroccan control.

Refugees of the territory populate Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, many of whom fled during the Western Saharan war between 1975 and 1991. Others are their descendants, most of whom have never returned. Constantinides, who has repeatedly visited the refugee camps, says just under 200,000 refugees are estimated to live in the camps despite there being no official census. The Algerian government claims there are 165,000 people, the UN 90, 000, while Morocco says no more than 50,000.

'Part of the historic Moroccan Kingdom'

The Kingdom of Morocco, to the north of the territory, has long been at the centre of controversy over the fate of Western Sahara. After Spain relinquished its colonial control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, the latter soon withdrew its claims to the territory while Morocco gained de facto control of the area (and with it, control over its rich mineral resources). The battle for Western Sahara ensued for 16 years before a ceasefire agreement was reached along with calls for a referendum on its national status that would ostensibly never come.

Some 26 years on, allegations of human rights violations against refugees and activists advanced by NGOs, multilateral organisations and allied governments including South Africa continue to emerge. Morocco, flagged by many organisations and African governments as the chief antagonist in the four-decade political drama, sees things differently.

Morocco claims Western Sahara, prior to colonisation by Spain, was part of the historic Moroccan Kingdom which justifies its claim to the territory. This was rejected by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in October 1975. For Morocco, the Polisario Front -- the organisation championing an end to Morocco's 'occupation' and itself also criticised for not holding human rights abusers to account - is a separatist movement used by Algeria to fight a proxy war.

'Need to elevate the struggle of the Sahrawi people'

Oliver Reginald Tambo, the longest standing president of the ANC, in 1979 told heads of states of the Non-Aligned Countries in Cuba: "No African country that we know of has done what has been done to the people of Western Sahara".

The ANC is today no less firm in its insistence on the legitimacy of the Sahwari people's fight for independence than was Tambo, about 40 years later during the year dedicated to his memory by the party.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in January wrote in the Daily Maverick: "South Africa has maintained a principled position on the right to self-determination for the Sahrawi people as enshrined by the United Nations (UN) Charter and the African Union (AU) Constitutive Act. We have also intensified our solidarity with the Polisario Front liberation movement, as they lead the people of Western Sahara in their quest for peace and independence".

Nkoana-Mashabane lamented the "lack of progress" in the region and the "dire humanitarian consequences", saying Africa has a "moral and political responsibility to contribute to the solution to conflicts in the continent".

South Africa in 2004 took a decision to recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) "when it became clear Morocco had ruled out any possibility for a referendum on Western Sahara in contravention of a UN Security Council resolution" the year before, she said.

Morocco's 2017 re-admittance after 33 years to the African Union, where the SADR is an official member was a "regrettable decision", the ANC said. At the ANC's birthday celebrations in January in which SADR president Brahim Ghali was in attendance, President Jacob Zuma said it was "unfathomable" that Western Sahara continued to be 'colonised' by Morocco, according to News24.

'Largest phosphate reserves in the world'

On South African shores, a 55,000 tonne shipment of phosphate mined in Western Sahara en-route to New Zealand was seized in Port Elizabeth in May after lawyers for the Polisario Front and SADR told the court they had the right to ownership of the minerals.

According to Radio New Zealand, the lawyers cited a 2016 European Court ruling that Western Sahara should not be considered a part of Morocco for trade purposes. The judges reserved their decision and have instructed the vessel to be held in the harbour until June 9.

The region contains the largest reserves of phosphates in the world along with significant oil reserves, and more recently according to Constantinides, gold. She said although much of the exploration takes place in Western Sahara, Morocco cashes in from the exports. According to the World Bank, Morocco's export trade value includes US$ 1,647,654.33 million for exports containing phosphoric acid and underground natural calcium phosphates worth US$ 1,022,324,42 million.

Western Sahara Resource Watch, an international network of organisations and activists researching alleged 'plundering' in the territory, accuses Morocco of illegal resource extraction or activities in the phosphate, oil, fishing and agricultural industries.

It also warns against Morocco's "green energy efforts", claiming renewable energy production is taking place illegally in Western Sahara.

'Justice delayed, justice denied'

Constantinides lamented the extent to which the Sahwari people are yet to achieve independence, nor even much media coverage. She said MINURSO -- the UN operation in the region -- is the only peacekeeping operation in the world without a mandate to monitor human rights violations in the region in which it functions.

"MINURSO has been deferred and reinstated time after time at the UN Security Council, while a growing population of Sahwari people live in five refugee camps mostly on unlivable land in 40 degree plus temperatures," she said.

"These people find a way to get up everyday and survive," she said based on her observations in the camps. "They showed me the tanks and landmines ... They can't grow their own food. Water comes in by tank every six weeks and every family has a lilo at the back of their house," she said.

The Moroccan Western Sahara Wall, or berm wall, separating the Moroccan and Polisario controlled areas is patrolled by thousands of Moroccan soliders, Constantinides claims, and extends for 2,700 km. This makes it one of the longest on earth. "It would make sense that Donald Trump, in fact, got his idea of the wall from Africa," she said.

Constantinides has called on South Africans to share the stories of the Sahrawi people, adding many activists on the ground are increasingly using social media platforms like Twitter to tell their own stories and provide information to the outside world. "Some of these people have WhatsApp but no toilets and wear the same clothes every day," she said.

"We don't realise the lives of many people living outside our South African borders," she said. "We don't know enough. The most important thing we can do now is tell their stories," she said.