Why South Africa Opposes Bin Laden's Killing

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The political legacy of opposition to apartheid has devolved into hostility toward the West -- and sympathy for anyone else engaged in "anti-imperial struggle"

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African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) President Julius Malema (L) and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of post-apartheid President Nelson Mandela, gesture during Malema's appearance at the Johannesburg court for a hate speech trial April 19, 2011. Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters


When President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been assassinated early Monday morning by a team of U.S. Navy Seals, world leaders were nearly unanimous in expressing support. Even countries typically hostile towards unilateral U.S. military action praised the development. "The Kremlin welcomes the serious success the United States achieved in the war against international terrorism," proclaimed Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The Chinese Foreign Ministry hailed the killing as "an important event and positive development in the international counter-terrorism campaign." Even Iran's Defense Minister put a positive spin on the news, stating that, with bin Laden finally gone, "U.S. (troops) have no excuse to stay in the region."

Osama Bin LadenAmong the pro forma expressions of support from around the world, the response from one country stood out: that of South Africa. There, the positions of the government and of the ruling African National Congress party (the two have become increasingly hard to distinguish over the 17 years in which the ANC has ruled the country uninterruptedly and with massive parliamentary majorities), have been, respectively, apathetic and condemnatory. Initially, the ANC echoed the concerns of conspiracy theorists, refusing to comment until the U.S. presented evidence of bin Laden's body. "Even President Obama hasn't seen the body," party spokesman Jackson Mthembu told the Mail & Guardian newspaper on Monday afternoon. "Until all of us are convinced we will not issue a formal statement." Once it was announced that bin Laden's corpse had been disposed of, the South African government issued the following statement:

The Government of the Republic of South Africa has noted the news of the passing on of Mr Osama bin Laden as announced during the early hours of today, Monday 2 May 2011.

South Africa reconfirms the commitment to the system of global governance of multilateralism. Our resolve to support peace, security and development in the world remains. We call upon all countries across the world to cooperate in stemming the demon of terorrism [sic], in all its manifestations, out of global politics.

Meanwhile, the reaction of the ANC, released by the party's head of international affairs (who also serves as South Africa's Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation), seems outright passive-aggressive in its attitude towards the United States:

The African National Congress strongly subscribes to the notion that world problems cannot be resolved through violence, but through peaceful means. There can, therefore, be no justification for the use of violence to resolve global challenges that we daily face -- whether social, political or economic.

South Africa is today hailed as a model of a peaceful transition from the tyranny of apartheid to constitutional democracy because of our belief in resolving issues around the table and not through the bullet.

It is against this background that -- while we have noted reports of the death of Osama bin Laden -- we hope that his death will greatly contribute towards a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan - countries that have seen high levels of conflict.

With this position, the ANC joins Hamas as the only governing party in the world to oppose the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

How much can parsing foreign ministry or political party statements really tell you about the inner workings of a country's foreign policy bureaucracy? Tom Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told the Mail & Guardian that the ANC's response may owe itself to nothing more nefarious than domestic politicking; South Africa is holding nationwide municipal elections on May 18th, he explained, and the party may have been uncertain about how the country's sizeable Muslim community would react to a statement celebrating bin Laden's death. That explanation seems ungenerous towards South African Muslims, as if they, unlike Muslims around the world who shared in the general sense of relief about bin Laden's death, would be especially angry that a man who killed so many of their co-religionists had been rid of.

The official ANC position seems tepid in comparison to what some prominent party figures have had to say. Julius Malema, President of the ANC Youth League and a rising star in the party, criticized the assassination, telling reporters earlier this week, "I don't know if killing people is a solution. I have a problem with America, they are untouchable." (Malema, who has spent the past year traveling the country singing an old, anti-apartheid struggle song featuring the lyrics "Shoot the Boer!", is currently facing legal charges for promoting hate speech). Yesterday, ANC spokesman Mthembu speculated to the Mail & Guardian that Obama's announcement of bin Laden's death might have been intended to boost his 2012 re-election campaign. "How do we know this is not political maneuvering before an election?" he asked rhetorically.

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James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a foreign correspondent based in Berlin. He is a columnist for the New York Daily News, Ha'aretz, and Tablet.

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