Why South Africa Opposes Bin Laden's Killing

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.

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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