Khadija Patel: The SA, Rwanda standoff

South Africa is currently embroiled in a standoff with Rwanda that appears to threaten long-term relations with Kigali. Diplomats on both sides have been expelled, but behind the scenes tenuous negotiations with each side voicing their opposition to the other must already have been held. There is, of course, hope that an amicable conclusion can still be reached, but it is not South Africa's relations with Rwanda alone that are at stake here.

Pacifists that we are, South Africa does not usually find itself embroiled in diplomatic spats.

"It's not very often that we have such a serious fall-out with a fellow-African country," one Department of International Relations and Co-Operation (Dirco) official told the Sunday Independent.

The Dirco official quoted described the situation with Rwanda as the worst row since 1995, when former president Nelson Mandela persuaded Commonwealth leaders to suspend Nigeria after it executed nine dissidents led by Ken Saro-wiwa.

Other diplomatic rows in recent years have included Israel in 2010 and Nigeria again in 2012.

By the unnamed Dirco official's own account then, this could be the worst diplomatic standoff involving South Africa since 1994.

Three Rwandan embassy officials were ordered to leave South Africa but Kigali raised the stakes on Friday, expelling six of South Africa's diplomats. Tit-for-tat diplomacy can often be mistaken for a child's ruse.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said on Twitter that her government was retaliating and protesting "at South Africa's harbouring of dissidents responsible for terrorist attacks in Rwanda".

Dirco, however, has made no official statement to explain to the South African public what exactly is going on.

And as infuriating as it is for some South Africans not to hear government clarify its position, the current situation with Rwanda may actually be too sensitive for public comment just yet.

South Africa is protesting the targeting of dissidents of President Kagame in South Africa. The very presence of these dissidents in South Africa has for some time been a sore point between the two countries. The assassination of intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in January, however, was described as the "the last straw" for the South African government.

Then another suspected attempt on the life of General Nywamwasa was foiled in Johannesburg last week, forcing the hand of the South African government.

And even as President Jacob Zuma prepares to call Rwandan President Paul Kagame to personally discuss the diplomatic breakdown, and the circumstances leading to this point, the implications of this particular diplomatic tiff reach beyond relations between South Africa and Rwanda.

The US government, a firm ally of Rwanda, has also entered the fray.

Last week, a State Department spokesperson for Africa Affairs said, "Efforts to silence dissidents run counter to Rwanda's democratic development".

That comment was a tacit acknowledgement from the US that Rwandan efforts to silence dissidents through murder and intimidation are indeed real.

And in 2011 a similar campaign against Rwandans in the United Kingdom was also foiled.

The South African government claims to have proof that Rwandan embassy officials, as well as one Burundian diplomat, are involved in this campaign of violence against Rwandan dissidents in South Africa.

And the Sunday Independent says Dirco officials report Burundi has not retaliated for the expulsion of its diplomat from Pretoria because the evidence against the Burundian diplomat was "solid".

What remains to be proven, however, is the involvement of the Rwandan government in this campaign.

The Rwandan government has denied any involvement in Karageya's death, but certainly didn't appear to be mourning him in any way, "When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog," Defence Minister General James Kabarebe reportedly said.

And then last week, armed men attacked the home of Kayumba Nyamasa, the Rwandan general. "They searched almost every room," a source close to Nyamasa's family told AFP. "It can't be an armed robbery. You don't ask where 'are the people?'". Nyamasa was, of course, not home. South African authorities apparently received a tipoff on another attempt against Nyamwasa and sent him to another safe house.

What is telling however, is the now deleted Twitter account of a @RichardGoldston, which the Rwandan government has admitted belonged to a staff member in the presidency. On Twitter that particular aide to Kagame had been viciously attacking Sonia Rolley, a journalist with RFI who has been covering the deaths of Rwandan dissidents.

That aide lambasted Rolley for her "reporting since January 3". Rolley later noted, the only incident she could recall was when Karegeya's phone, taken by his murderers, was apparently turned on that day.

So there is more than just South African ties with Rwanda at stake here.

How this particular tiff is resolved will go some way towards determining how the international community more generally will react to what seems to be a well-orchestrated international campaign against Rwandan dissidents.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).