Why South Africa Opposes Bin Laden's Killing

The ANC's response abjuring violence is especially striking given the group's history. The ANC, after all, founded a militant wing ("Umkhonto we Size," or Spear of the Nation) in 1961, giving up its five decades-long strategy of non-violence in favor of a campaign of "armed struggle." The armed struggle reached its height in the 1980s, when the ANC called upon the country's blacks to make South Africa "ungovernable." (When the apartheid-era government of President P.W. Botha offered, in 1985, to free Nelson Mandela on the condition that he renounce violence, the anti-apartheid hero refused. Some of the party's followers took its appeal to violent instability too far, including Mandela's then-wife, Winnie, who infamously proclaimed, "we shall liberate this country" with "our boxes of matches and our necklaces." (Winnie's "necklaces" being the gasoline-soaked tires that ANC activists placed around the necks of alleged "collaborators" and lit on firpractice). Contrary to its professed policy at the time of targeting only South African government and military installations, the ANC carried out numerous bombings against civilian targets.

The ANC may or may not have been morally justified or strategically vindicated in deciding to take up arms against apartheid (and there remains serious debate over the extent to which the ANC's violence was aimed at bringing down the white regime as opposed to eliminating potential black rivals and preparing the way for the near-unchallenged political status it has long enjoyed in post-apartheid South Africa). Regardless, the ANC has never recanted its launching the "armed struggle." How, then, to explain its statement that, "world problems cannot be resolved through violence?"

The ANC's position on bin Laden's demise is illustrative of a disturbing trend: South Africa's transformation, under its tutelage, into an increasingly anti-Western power. Supported by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the ANC's alliance with the communist bloc was more than just a tactical alignment for an exiled, decimated, and desperate liberation movement. Most of the ANC's senior leaders during the apartheid years were simultaneously members of the South African Communist Party, and today, the ANC governs the country as part of a formal "Tripartite Alliance" with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Thanks to its intellectual kinship with Marxism-Leninism, decades-long working alliance with such thugs and terrorist movements like Muammer Qadaffi and the PLO, and lingering resentment towards Western governments for not taking a harder line against the apartheid government, the ANC elite has never gotten over its deep suspicion of the West in general and America in particular. Coloring all this is the continuing legacy of apartheid, which has made the party's intellectual elite hostile toward anything that carries even a hint of "colonialism" about it.

A man who knew how to manipulate these raw emotions was the country's second post-apartheid president, Thabo Mbeki. Largely ignoring the country's massive domestic problems, he viewed himself as a world figure leading an "African Renaissance." He frequently lashed out at Western governments for what he believed to be their colonialist, patronizing views of Africans. In a a 2001 speech, he alleged that Western alarm about AIDS in Africa was predicated upon racist assumptions of black male sexuality. "Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world," he declared, "they proclaim that our cotinent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust." Most tragically, this paranoia led Mbeki to deny the link between HIV and AIDS, a delusion according to a Harvard study, which may have contributed to the unnecessary deaths of nearly 400,000 South Africans. Throughout his years in office, Mbeki defended his neighbor, Robert Mugabe, who was in the process of destroying one of the most productive and developed societies on the African continent. Mbeki's support for Mugabe was borne partly from self-interest (if a sister liberation movement is defeated in Zimbabwe, so the ANC thinking goes, such an outcome becomes more possible in South Africa), but also from resentment that Great Britain (Zimbabwe's former colonial master) and the United States would dare intervene in his neighbor's affairs.

This misplaced anti-imperialism has carried over into international forums. During a two-year rotation on the United Nations Security Council from 2007 to 2009, South Africa blocked discussion of human rights abuses in Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Uzbekistan, opposed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear weapons program, and backed a Russian attempt to prevent the president of Kosovo from speaking to the Security Council. Faithfully following Mbeki's lead, the country's UN Ambassador said that it was merely attempting to counter "an imbalance of global power." The Sudanese UN Ambassador at the time praised South Africa as "a great nation; it's a role model for us." In 2009, it was reported that South Africa was selling weapons to Libya, Syria, and Venezuela, and had authorized the sale of a radar-warning defense system to North Korea. That same year, in deference to China, it denied a visa to the Dalai Lama.

The paranoia about Western motives was even more explicitly stated by ANC alliance partner COSATU, which, upon hearing the news of bin Laden's death, said it was,

extremely concerned at the manner in which Bin Laden was killed by US government forces in Pakistan. It is following a trend of using armed force, under the excuse of fighting "terrorism," by the USA, Britain and France in particular, to justify invading other countries in order to protect their economic interests and impose their hegemony on the world.

The group also accused the United States of having invaded Iraq "to secure access to the country's oil reserves," alleged that Western countries seek "to bring about regime change" in Libya "in order, yet again, to protect their access to oil," and concluded that "these former colonial powers are acting as though African countries were still their colonies." (The U.S. has never had colonies in Africa).

Even Mandela has not been immune to the ANC's Anti-Western, Third Worldist sentiment. "There is one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest," he said of Castro's Cuba upon his release from prison in 1990, "that is in its love for human rights and liberty." Challenged on the ANC's embrace of nasty characters and regimes, he replied, "Our attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle. Yasir Arafat, Colonel Gadaffi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt." The inaugural recipient of the Al-Gadaffi Prize for Human Rights while still in jail, Mandela visited the Libyan dictator in 1997, calling him "My brother leader, my brother leader," and hosted him in Cape Town in 1999 as his last official guest as president of South Africa. (To be fair, the South African government did vote in favor of the March UN Security Council resolution authorizing force in Libya, although ANC spokesman Mthembu has since made it sound like the country regrets its decision, telling the Mail & Guardian yesterday that "our good intentions have been abused.")

In the run up to the Iraq War in 2003, Mandela accused President George W. Bush of "wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust" and said that the United States was ignoring the U.N. because its secretary-general at the time was "a black man." While the speech was strident, especially by Mandela's normally sober standards, it faithfully presented the ANC view of the world, and its echoes can clearly be heard in the party's reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden. "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world," Mandela said, "it is the United States of America."

Presented by

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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