When South Sudan President Salva Kiir announced on 15 February that he had backed down from his hitherto intransigent demand that South Sudan have 32 states, South African Deputy President David Mabuza praised him for his 'progressive' and 'revolutionary' decision.
Mabuza, President Cyril Ramaphosa's special envoy to South Sudan, said he'd 'always remained confident that the parties would make a breakthrough on this matter and that the people of South Sudan would find solutions to their challenges.'
Kiir's backing down paved the way for him and his arch rival Riek Machar to enter into the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGNU) a week later - Saturday 22 February - right on deadline.
Speaking as African Union (AU) chair, Ramaphosa noted that 'this significant breakthrough' had followed Kiir's decision to concede on the number of states. He added that Kiir's move came almost two weeks after he met Kiir and Machar, separately, at the AU summit. Ramaphosa had encouraged them to 'redouble their efforts towards the speedy resolution of the outstanding issues in the implementation of the [September 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan].'
Reading these two statements, one might deduce that the two South Africans had played a major part in persuading Kiir to back off his insistence on 32 states. But this isn't so.
What should be made of South Africa's protracted mediation of the South Sudan crisis?
When Ramaphosa met Kiir and Machar at the AU summit, he reportedly urged them both to form the R-TGNU by the 22 February deadline - and only then to discuss the thorny question of how many states there should be in the South Sudan federation.
Kiir agreed to this, unsurprisingly. Equally unsurprisingly, Machar rejected it. He saw this as just another ruse by Kiir to duck the issue. Machar was sure that once the government was formed, Kiir would forget about reducing the number of states to the 10 demanded by Machar - and the constitution.
Machar's people also saw Ramaphosa's demand as further evidence of Pretoria taking Kiir's side. They believed South Africa should have been putting pressure on Kiir from the start to do the right thing. Similar misgivings apply to Mabuza's mediation which peaked in December and January when he tried to persuade both sides to submit the issue of the number of states to external arbitration. This created a blur of contradictory South Sudanese reactions.
Some in the Machar camp felt that Mabuza was favouring Kiir by obfuscating what should have been a clear-cut issue. But even in the Kiir camp some said the September 2015 revitalised peace agreement - the framework for all these negotiations - made no provision for outside arbitration. Mabuza should simply have insisted on Kiir doing the right thing by giving up his unconstitutional position.
After Mabuza abandoned his mediation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) leaders met Kiir and Machar to tackle the issue and step up pressure on Kiir to back off. So did the special envoys of the South Sudan troika - the United States, United Kingdom and Norway.
The greater successes of IGAD only serve to underscore the limitations of South Africa's approach
Kiir at first resisted the pressure but then on 15 February announced he was ready to return to 10 states. But his 'compromise' had a sting in its tail: in addition to the original 10 states, there would be three 'administrative regions' - Abyei, Boma and Ruweng.
Machar at first rejected this apparent concession by Kiir, suspecting that the creation of administrative regions was just a way of reintroducing additional states through the back door. But Machar then made his own concession, agreeing to defer that issue, and was duly sworn in once again on Saturday.
Whether or not the R-TGNU will stick this time around remains moot, given its discouraging precedents. When Machar returned to Juba in 2016 to take up the deputy presidency which Kiir had removed him from three years earlier, he fled for his life from Kiir's soldiers.
Nonetheless IGAD - and the international community - deserve credit for sustaining the pressure on Kiir to make the concession that led to the deal. Some observers are giving special credit to the new Sudanese government which currently chairs IGAD.
What should be made of South Africa's protracted mediation? Even in the international relations department itself, questions were asked about Mabuza's approach. Senior officials wondered who his foreign policy adviser was and whether, in the apparent absence of a strong mandate from his government, he may not have fallen under the influence of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a Kiir ally.
Even in SA's international relations department, questions were asked about Mabuza's approach
Yet Ramaphosa's intervention urging Kiir and Machar to form a government first and resolve the states issue later suggested that Mabuza might not have been 'freelancing', and that the trouble lay deeper - in the Pretoria government's overall approach.
Pretoria's defence would probably be that it tried to remain even-handed - and that it had no real choice as Kiir would have rejected any pressure applied to him alone. But the IGAD leaders seem to have proven this wrong. The South Sudan case demonstrates that this is an approach that almost inevitably favours the incumbent, as it leaves him untouched in his power and positions.
The greater successes of the IGAD leaders - backed by the troika - on the face of it only serve to underscore the limitations of South Africa's approach. Some might argue that one cannot separate Pretoria's approach from IGAD's as Pretoria acted as part of the overall IGAD mediation. But that doesn't really explain the nature of South Africa's mediation.
One must assume that both Ramaphosa and Mabuza had considerable autonomy in their mediation efforts, within the broad IGAD framework, and weren't simply ferrying IGAD messages. And on the critical question of the number of states and their boundaries, the South African leaders didn't pressure Kiir to back off - which was the key to IGAD's success.
The South Sudan mediation should prompt Pretoria to take a long hard look at its mediation philosophy - especially since it ostensibly intends to deploy it more often this year in the AU chair. Yet with Ramaphosa absorbed by domestic priorities, one senses that Pretoria might be more inclined than ever to take the road more travelled - which may not deliver the desired results.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant