Tiptoeing around Osama bin Laden

The African National Congress’s tepid response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist plot that killed nearly 3 000 people, has left political observers scratching their heads. Is the party conflicted about where it stands on Bin Laden’s death — or is it playing it safe on an issue that may have huge international significance but little consequence for South Africa?

The party was slow to comment in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s death in a covert operation carried out by the United States on Pakistani soil in the early hours of Monday morning.

At first, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu told the M&G that the party would not comment on the issue until evidence of Bin Laden’s body had been made available.

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Meanwhile, the government — through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation put out an official statement from government saying only that it had noted the “passing on” of Bin Laden and reconfirming its “commitment to the system of global governance of multilateralism”. Without taking a stance on either the killing of Bin Laden’s or the US’s unilateral operation to neutralise a terrorist on foreign soil, the department made a call for cooperation in “stemming the demon of terrorism, in all its manifestations”.

Enter the party
Later that afternoon, the ANC’s head of international relations, Ebrahim Ebrahim — who also serves as the government department’s deputy minister — released a brief statement on behalf of the party saying that world problems should be solved through peaceful means and that there could be no justification for the use of violence to resolve global challenges.
And, while the government had simply called for multilateralism in combating global terrorism, the ANC went further, endorsing the peaceful resolution of issues “around the table and not through the bullet”.

Exactly how one sits down around a table with a terrorist organisation that has no specific national base or agenda is a moot point.

Analysts criticised the ambiguity of the ANC statement, which did nothing to either explicitly support or disapprove of the actions of the US.

Deliberate ambiguity
Tom Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, believes the vagueness of the government statement and the ambiguity of the ANC statement could be a deliberate attempt to offend neither its trading partners nor its supporters at home.

“They could be steering away from the issue because it isn’t really our issue,” said Wheeler. Aside from the fact that al-Qaeda’s base of operations is so far from South African borders, the group has becoming increasingly obsolete over the past few years.
Instead the Arab Spring, the grassroots fight for democracy in Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has become far more relevant in the global political landscape.

Wheeler also believes that, in a voting year, such ambiguity could reflect a reluctance to alienate Muslim voters so close to the local elections. South Africa has a large Muslim population, he said, and it was not clear what they thought about the killing.

While not necessarily supportive of al-Qaeda, many Muslims in South Africa are opposed to the US’s unilateral approach to foreign policy and its tendency to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states, particularly in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. Many have expressed anger over the way in which Bin Laden was killed and that his body disposed of at sea.

Some context
The ANC’s muddled response to the incident may be rooted in the historically fraught relationship between the party and the US government.

The ANC has had a history of hostility towards the US since it first took up the armed struggle. Aligning itself with the Soviet Union during this time also cast the US as a key adversary. The US, meanwhile, labelled the party a terrorist organisation and it was not until 2008 that ANC members, including former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, were removed from the country’s terrorist watch list.

As apartheid ended and the ANC became a legitimate political party, attempts were made to mend bridges. During the presidency of Nelson Mandela, relationships were cordial, with senior government officials meeting regularly.

But this soured once Thabo Mbeki took office in 1999. High level meetings became a thing of the past, and the US’s ambassador at the time, Eric Bost, once famously complained that he could not get access to ministers, even to discuss the possibility of assisting the country with security training. Mbeki’s Aids denialism and his lenient position on Zimbabwe did little to help matters with the US.

Relationships with the US government during the Bush regime were frosty, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq further deepened the rift. Mbeki’s condemnation of this unilateral approach to foreign policy was very much in line with the ANC’s liberation ideology and its firm stance against imperialism.

Old habits die hard
Since Bush and Mbeki made way for Obama and Zuma, both sides have worked hard to rekindle a more genial relationship between the two countries. But old habits die hard, and it’s not hard to believe that certain members of the ANC may still feel a certain degree of distrust towards to the US.

If anything, both the ANC and the government’s response to the killing of Bin Laden have been indicative of a reluctance to be seen as being aligned with the US.

But this is in character for the country, which — despite holding a position of power on the continent — has been reluctant to exert its influence in a way that could be seen as hegemonic and preferring instead to associate itself with weaker states.

Paul-Simon Handy, research director at the Institute for Security Studies, has asked whether it’s time for government to put away the dogmatic pacifism of the ANC and instead engage in the challenge of international relations. “International relations are not an interest- or power-free zone of pursuit,” he says. “Pursuing national and regional interests are laudable, if human rights and democracy are respected.”

Some say that the ANC’s take on the Bin Laden issue is irrelevant as the party isn’t itself involved in foreign relations. Retired US diplomat Brooks Spector says it’s important to recognise that there is a difference between the party and the government. “The US government is not overly concerned with what the ANC thinks so much as what the government thinks,” he says.

But understanding the ANC’s position on this issue is important precisely because the lines between party and state have been so blurred ever since the ANC assumed power. “Government sometimes sees itself as the implementation body of decisions taken at the ANC,” says Handy.

This makes the ANC’s reaction to Bin Laden’s death yet another clue into our country’s conflicted attitude towards the world’s largest superpower.


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