The South African government has granted the former president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, permission to visit the country for an unspecified period of time. The fact that Aristide and his family have not received formal political asylum is relevant. Under the ?temporary residential status?, various implications and conditions associated with political immunity and international law are avoided. Despite this, a number of points need to be considered, and clarity given around the future status of Aristide in South Africa.

Up until this year South Africa?s relations with Haiti were virtually non-existent, but this changed in January when President Thabo Mbeki attended Haiti’s celebrations of the 200th anniversary of its independence.

Mbeki was the only head of state beyond the Caribbean to attend these celebrations. Others declined the invitation on the grounds of poor governance and human rights abuses by Aristide’s government. But the South African government has maintained that Haiti ? the first independent black nation ? is an example of liberation, and sentiment attached to the African Diaspora seems to have trumped important concerns about good democratic governance and transparency.

However, a number of Aristide?s actions as Haitian president were contrary to the principles of the African Union, as well as those being promoted by Mbeki through the New Partnership for Africa?s Development. Claims that Aristide was democratically re-elected in 2000 are undermined by allegations of a fraudulent election in which only a small minority of Haitians cast ballots. Following a pattern that has plagued Haiti for two centuries, press freedom and worker rights were severely circumscribed and Aristide’s political opposition was violently repressed.

But the Caribbean regional grouping, Caricom, requested that South Africa host Aristide as a gesture that might help stabilise the current situation ? and lead to the eventual re-integration of Aristide and his forces into the Haitian political environment. This would be in accordance with South Africa?s active support of multilateral politics and could serve as an important justification for the government?s position.

However, the political dynamics in the western hemisphere and, more particularly, in the Caribbean need to be clearly understood. While both the United States and France recognise the transitional government in Haiti, Caricom has not yet formally recognised the new Haitian government. But because the new government already includes leaders from the former Aristide administration and its opposition, the transitional government is likely to receive recognition at the next Caricom meeting in July. Such recognition could significantly change Haiti’s political fortunes and Aristide’s status ? including the possibility that he might be charged for acts committed while he was in power.

Thus, one key question is whether the South African government recognises Aristide, the individual, over Haiti’s transitional government. Statements by the South African government seem to indicate Aristide still carries the status of a head of state as he was ?undemocratically ousted?. In Haiti, a country where democracy was neither honoured nor effectively practised when Aristide was in power, it is not particularly surprising that he ended up leaving office in non-democratic circumstances.

All of this has repercussions for South Africa?s current foreign policy, as well as for precedents it may set for the future. South Africa?s foreign policy is based on inter-state relations, but this principle may have been modified to accommodate relationships with Aristide. Any encouragement to perceptions that South Africa is ?soft? on leaders that lead their countries down a self-destructive path may contribute to parallels being drawn between Aristide and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. South Africa should be careful to avoid becoming a haven for leaders rejected by their own people.

The South African government has indicated that it supports a probe into the circumstances of Aristide?s removal. Such a probe should also investigate the events that occurred during Aristide’s rule that contradicted the principles of democracy and human rights, and that finally resulted in the violent collapse of Aristide’s government.

Lyal White and J Brooks Spector are respectively senior researcher: Latin America and Bradlow Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs.