Category Archives: South African Politics

Washington mourns Nelson Mandela

The Stars and Stripes at half-mast over the White HouseThe outpouring of respect, admiration, and affection for Nelson Mandela here in Washington, D.C., since his death on December 5, has been phenomenal. It would be hard to match—apart from in South Africa itself—the reverence and passion felt for Mandela by the residents of this city. After his many visits to the city, Washingtonians responded to Mandela’s passing as if he were a true native son.

The degree of goodwill toward South Africa—as personified by the inimitable and inspirational Mandela—moved me this past week. There are many Americans who care greatly about South Africa and genuinely want it to succeed.

Appreciation of Madiba’s life accomplishments is especially heartfelt in the large African American community and diaspora of Africans from across the continent, both immigrants and diplomats. Resonance between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights and that of black South Africans is self-evident. The local African American community played a critical role in stoking opposition to the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s Nationalist government. Their campaign of seeking arrest at the South African Embassy here in the mid-1980s is well recognized as having been pivotal. Until Barack Obama’s election to the White House, their finest hour was their success in strategizing to oppose U.S. political and economic backing of apartheid South Africa and support growing worldwide disgust at the white minority government’s oppression of the black majority.

Official Washington responded quickly to the news of Madiba’s passing. Within half an hour of South African President Jacob Zuma announcing Mandela’s death, U.S. President Obama delivered stirring comments on Mandela from the White House press briefing room. He also declared, in a rare honour for a foreigner, that flags outside federal buildings would be flown at half-mast for a week out of respect for Mandela.

The top-heavy U.S. delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto last Tuesday says everything about U.S. regard for Mandela. It is unprecedented that four current and former U.S. presidents (and perhaps a fifth prospective one?) would travel to the memorial service of a former head of state.

President Obama’s speech at the Soweto memorial was unquestionably the rousing center point of the memorial—it was the eulogy of the day. And thank goodness for it. Without it, the speeches would have been rather ho-hum. Obama recognized that it “took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but also a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts”. He noted, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done”.

The pity is that the thoughtful content President Obama offered was overshadowed by the non-controversy of his quick handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro, the stupid reaction to the “selfie” photograph and seat change, and the extremely disconcerting problem of the incompetent, violence-prone signer standing feet away from some of the world’s most important people during the ceremony.

The U.S. national memorial service for Mandela was held in the Washington National Cathedral on December 11, the day after the Soweto memorial service. It was, in many ways, the polar opposite of the chaotic, carnival-like—yet also deliciously revelatory—Soweto service. It was purposeful, reflective, impassioned yet solemn. Unlike the Soweto memorial or yesterday’s dignified Qunu burial, both of which took place with the world’s full attention, this service appears to have received little publicity. Which is a shame, because it was outstanding. I urge readers to watch videos of the proceedings.

The main speeches were very thoughtful. Vice President Joe Biden spoke first, followed later by Andrew Young, Allan Boesak, and finally South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool. The last three speeches were essentially powerful “calls to action”. Young admonished mourners that “we have nothing yet to celebrate” as “the hungry can’t eat hope, they can’t drink inspiration … we have to keep on keeping on”. Boesak too reiterated that, in the words of Rev. James Moore’s gospel song, “It ain’t over until God says it’s done”. In a singularly eloquent and well-crafted speech, Rasool acknowledged, “Nelson Mandela’s values are eternal in time, universal in space, and enduring in every circumstance…[and] he always understood that progress only comes from working together.” Rasool ended his comments by noting that “Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice. Each of us who has been inspired by him and been touched by him and moved by him must continue the long walk”.

There is nothing more ”establishment” or respectable in Washington than a memorial service in your honour at the National Cathedral. I marveled at the irony and majesty of the profound service for the formerly marginalized “terrorist” whose name was too recently removed from the list forbidding entry into the United States. What a long, improbable and incredibly inspiring walk Nelson Mandela undertook.

The South African Embassy in Washington was the locus for daily gatherings of mourners. Many placed flowers by the embassy’s newly unveiled statute of Mandela and signed condolence books. There were also nightly prayer vigils with robust singing and dancing.

There were some grumblings of discontent at the attention showered on Mandela. Some questioned the lowering of the Stars and Stripes, asking why this was ordered for a foreigner. “Were U.S. presidents similarly honoured in foreign countries?” It was also fascinating to learn how conservative supporters of Senator Ted Cruz and former Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized them for offering praise of Mandela. This underscores how much work remains to be done in furthering racial reconciliation and understanding—not only in South Africa, but in the United States too.

Flowers from admirers

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Madiba wows Washington

Fully unveiled at lastA new statue of Nelson Mandela dazzled, charmed, and empowered all gathered outside the South African embassy in Washington this past overcast Saturday. Especially endearing to those present was the uncovering—thanks to wind gusts—of Mandela’s characteristic raised fist ahead of the statue’s official unveiling. Speaker after speaker remarked on how “only Nelson Mandela would unveil himself”. He was certainly that kind of leader. He saw the path forward before others did, and then brought them along.

The premature exposure of Mandela’s defiant fist was perfect for an occasion rich in symbolism. South African Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool gave the speech of the day. He delivered a rousing tribute to Mandela and an impassioned, mesmerizing exposition of how morality trumps legality. “What is legal,” he reminded, “is not always moral”. He welcomed the nearly completed renovation of the embassy. He delighted in its spiritual cleansing and purifying. From being a place in which the heinous had been defended, the embassy was now a place of promise, where the new could be combined with the best of the old. The statue of Mandela out in front underscored this fresh beginning for the embassy.

Peek-a-boo
The tribute from Zindzi Mandela, the youngest Mandela daughter, was poignant. Most Americans remember her as a feisty 25-year-old who read a letter from her still-imprisoned father to a huge rally in Soweto in 1985. She famously read, “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” She was frank at Saturday’s event too. She shared how inaccurate and hurtful much media speculation was about her 95-year-old father’s health and how he would meet His Maker in due course. She stressed that he had always seen and conducted himself as part of a collective, as a member of the African National Congress, and never as an individual. Even in divorcing her mother, Zindzi noted, her father had done this as part of a collective.

Being part of a community or collective was a constant theme. American speakers at the event included luminaries from the protests organized outside the South African embassy in the mid-1980s. There were many references to these Washington demonstrations and the accompanying frequent arrests, as well as to the divestment and disinvestment campaigns. In these efforts, U.S. pension funds were pressured to divest the stock of U.S. and foreign corporations invested in South Africa; such companies were also pressured to disinvest from South Africa. These collaborative efforts were critical. Together, they helped force a reluctant Reagan administration to adopt sanctions against South Africa. Such economic and other pressures contributed to the Nationalist government’s increasing isolation and to a general sense of crisis. Eventually, the unconditional release of political prisoners like Mandela and negotiations between the Nationalist government and the ANC brought freedom and democracy to all South Africans.

Contributors from the podium spoke often about the essential connection between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights in the United States and their support for black South Africans in their struggle. Many noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. One speaker referenced the triangle that was now formed by the statues of King on the National Mall, Mahatma Gandhi nearby at the Indian embassy, and Mandela. These three are global icons in the push for equality and social justice in diverse societies around the world.

Listening to the American activists sharing recollections of their participation in the Free South Africa Movement was also a little jarring for this South African. Sometimes I found the commentary a little myopic and ahistorical. Yes, activism in the United States helped dramatically to change the global position of the Nationalist government and contributed profoundly to its demise. But somehow—apart from the obvious stress on Mandela’s role—the contributions of ordinary black South Africans in defying the government, making its laws unworkable, increasing the costs of enforcement, and generally opposing the unjust system that dictated their lives were understated at the event. The anti-apartheid movement was far more than American elites protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington and its consulates around the United States.

The day was replete with many wonderful moments. Keynote speaker South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, broke into a struggle song about Mandela before delivering her comments. How many foreign ministers would sing an impromptu solo like that! The mood in the gathered audience (at least where I was sitting) was relaxed and happy, with many introductions and reunions taking place. The clothing of many is also worthy of comment. Gorgeous colourful beads and fabrics abounded. I also enjoyed watching a D.C. policewoman snapping photos of the activities on her cell phone in between her official duty of directing traffic. It was that kind of a joyful day! And it was a most positive affirmation of South African-U.S. bilateral relations.

Even the rain—always a blessing in Africa—waited for the ceremony’s conclusion before bringing relief to parched Washington.

Shrouded in mystery

Far beyond the Beltway

Americans are consistently concerned about their elected representatives becoming too Washington-centric. The bubble of Washington’s self-important political culture is alluring.

Leaving Washington and considering it from other vantages is always revealing. Whether viewing it from elsewhere in the United States, or from another country—as I am now, from Cape Town, South Africa—one always has a different perspective on Washington than when in it.

Washington, D.C., is a self evidently important global focal point. There are many cities in the world where momentous decisions are made that profoundly impact others, especially those living outside that city’s perimeters and indeed beyond that country’s borders. Washington and Beijing are arguably the two most powerful cities in the world at present, with the impact and influence of decisions made in these cities and then implemented beyond them being breathtaking.

On this visit to South Africa, I am mostly struck by how esoteric and inward-looking much of what is happening in Washington appears when one is well beyond “the Beltway”, the famous highway that encircles Washington. Certainly, these impressions occur too when in Washington itself. Indeed, one can then be consumed with dismay and frustration at the small-minded posturing and pettiness of much so-called debate there nowadays. As I sit in Cape Town, I am taken by the extent of the seeming triviality and purposelessness of so much of the political machinations in Washington. The antics and contortions of politicians there suggest they have lost the big picture. Their inability to address the U.S.’s challenges of the day has greatly damaged perceptions of the United States.

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa is one prism through which to view perceptions of the United States. I have intentionally asked as many local people as possible about how they viewed the president’s visit. Reactions ranged from great enthusiasm and appreciation to utter indifference and dismissal. There were of course also boisterous demonstrations against Obama’s presence from local Moslems appalled at targeted drone killings, as well as by those supporting the Palestinian cause and protesting U.S. bias toward Israel in the Middle East.

A key factor on President Obama’s visit to South Africa was the hospitalization in Pretoria of an elderly Nelson Mandela. Concern over Mandela’s health pervaded Obama’s visit. Obama recognized people’s distracted attention by mentioning Mandela at every opportunity throughout his visit and acknowledging Mandela’s profound influence on himself. Most importantly, Obama gained enormous goodwill and personal credit by backing away from possibly seeing the ailing Mandela, instead meeting privately with family members. South Africans approved wholeheartedly of this sensitivity by Obama.

Many to whom I have spoken were glad President Obama had taken the trouble to come. For those following the visit more closely, Obama’s public speeches at the University of Johannesburg ‘s Soweto branch and the next day at the University of Cape Town were well received, more notably the latter as it was less choreographed and so perceived as more sincere.

The UCT speech was noted for its focus on aspirations, ideas, and values. Obama remarked on the impossibility of predicting what was happening at that very moment—America’s first black president addressing a fully integrated audience at a South African university that had awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela. Obama’s comments on the pernicious impact of corruption were particularly popular, reflecting South Africans’ dismay at increasing local corruption. His observation that government should serve its people rather than itself seemed to garner even more applause than when Obama greeted the crowd with South African salutations, including the ubiquitous “howzit”.

A Johannesburg-based friend shared an anecdote about a taxi driver she encountered who had journeyed to Soweto specifically to line the route the president’s motorcade would travel to his UJ Soweto speech. The driver was apparently enthralled by the experience. Other Johannesburg friends who were caught up in traffic snarl-ups related to the Obama visit remarked negatively on all the hardware that goes along with a presidential trip, with the word “circus” being used a few times.

While people overall appreciated that Obama, the first black American president, had come to South Africa, and recognized him as a “good guy”, others said “so what?” Many preferred instead to speak about their opposition to U.S. policies. They spoke of their dislike of U.S. surveillance methods and U.S. policies in the Middle East and the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Others commented on the irony of Obama being so moved upon visiting Robben Island, where Mandela and other leaders from the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned for many years, while detainees from the war in Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Obama coming to South Africa and making a couple of solid speeches certainly didn’t change the latent anti-Americanism of many South Africans. They need more than a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential visit to be convinced that the United States wants to engage seriously in Africa—and is not ceding Africa to the Chinese and Brazilians. For the United States to be more of a player here than it is, South Africans need to feel and see more commitment.

Personally, I do feel that the United States does not get the credit it should for its incredibly generous HIV/AIDS work here. Many hundreds of thousands of South Africans are alive today because of the U.S. PEPFAR Program, which began its life-sustaining donations of anti-retrovirals under President George W. Bush.

While Washington’s political sway might be diminishing in Africa, the pervasive impact of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry is amazing. The amusing, loveable minions from “Despicable Me” have, for example, achieved much attention in South Africa—wider than hapless American politicians? Reflecting clever marketing too, the minions appear in unexpected contexts here.

Is the soft power of American culture perhaps more powerful than the well-articulated thoughts of a visiting American president?

The “99 percent”

A tense standoff last night between Occupy D.C. protesters and police over an unauthorized wooden structure that protesters provocatively erected and police predictably took down, arresting 31 in the process, may escalate into a wider confrontation. Police may now decide that the two Occupy D.C. camps must be cleared. Or the camps may be allowed to continue, so long as the occupants resume their previous non-aggressive style. Whatever official decision is made, as the temperature dips further this winter, I predict that the ranks of Occupy D.C. are likely to thin.

Police in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Portland, amongst other cities, have already evicted protesters from parks and arrested those who resisted leaving. The clearing of the University of California at Davis campus was particularly controversial due to police pepper spraying kneeling protesters, actions that were captured on video. Mayors have justified clearing the parks as necessary for public health, and overnight camping is prohibited in many parks.

Yet the factors that motivated the Occupy movement have hardly dissipated. They are still very much in play. These include anger at expanding income disparities, where the wealthy “1 percent” gets richer and richer and the rest of society—the “99 percent”—receives diminishing or no benefit. Protesters are also disgusted at crony capitalism and how individuals and institutions in the financial and mortgage sectors were not punished for their role in the 2008 financial collapse and mortgage crisis but were instead bailed out. There is also deep frustration over ongoing unemployment and the lack of prospects, and worry about debt and the inability, for example, to repay student loans.

While the Occupy movement may have a winter go-slow, there is no question in my mind that the movement will be back in the spring, especially because of the pivotal presidential election in 2012.

The Occupy movement has profoundly changed political discourse in the United States. All discussion now on how to revive the economy to foster job creation while simultaneously cutting spending and raising revenues to cut the federal debt is phrased in terms of the impacts on high-earners, the middle class, the working poor, and the unemployed. Where to make necessary spending cuts and how and for whom to increase taxes are the core issues of the 2012 presidential campaign. That is the accomplishment of the Occupy movement.

As I walked through the two camps of Occupy D.C. last week, chatting to people here and there, the significant political impact of the Occupy movement was not all I pondered. I marveled, honoured, and celebrated freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The two Occupy D.C. camps are in the heart of Washington, D.C. The one camp, Occupy McPherson, is literally two blocks northeast of the White House; this is where yesterday’s clash with the police occurred. The other camp is at Freedom Plaza. This site is flanked by Pennsylvania Avenue as the road heads from the White House and the Treasury Department to Capitol Hill, passing the Willard Hotel, one of D.C.’s swankiest, and the National Theatre, both now gaily festooned in Christmas finery.

Yes, Washington is the “protest capital” of the United States, so local authorities are used to this type of activity and are conditioned to tolerate it. Yes, prior to yesterday’s skirmish, police had issued warnings to D.C. Occupiers about, for example, urinating in public and the like; possible pretexts to clearing the camps? Nevertheless, the camps are an extraordinary sight, and their persistence in their prominent locations highlights the core values of a tolerant society.

During my most recent stroll through Occupy D.C. camps, I wondered how other societies marked by huge disparities in income between rich and poor would handle such ongoing protests. I tried to imagine “Occupy Beijing”, with protesters camping in Beihai Park, the dusty public park nearest to the lush, well-manicured Zhongnanhai, Chinese leaders’ official compound in the heart of Beijng. The Chinese leadership’s initial tolerance of weeks-long protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989 ended in a massive blood bath. Today on Tiananmen Square, any attempt at protest, whether it is shouting obscenities or unfurling a critical banner, is squashed immediately by the vigilant, always present security officials. Instant arrest is guaranteed.

I thought about other protest movements that have emerged from the “99 percent” in 2011: The groundswell of public discontent in Arab countries that has felled dictators; and the protests in India supporting activist Anna Hazare’s campaign for tougher laws against chronic graft.

As I meandered amidst the tents of Occupy D.C., I wondered about South Africa, my home country with its alarming income inequality. Wealth there is concentrated in a small elite, government and corporate corruption is now widespread, unemployment is shockingly high, and many young people feel they have no prospects or productive means to improve their lives. Despondency increased with recent passage of a democracy-narrowing Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill) whereby classified information that is in the public interest cannot now be disclosed. Exposing government corruption or malfeasance is now seen as threatening national security.

How tolerant would South African authorities be of an “Occupy Pretoria” or an “Occupy Cape Town” that tapped into public disgust at government corruption? Imagine a tent city of frustrated, unemployed youth and other representatives of the “99 percent” in the terraced gardens under the Union Buildings in Pretoria, or in the Gardens adjoining Parliament in Cape Town. Would the South African government allow such months-long encampments? I reckon neither an “Occupy Pretoria” nor an “Occupy Cape Town” would be tolerated as long as Occupy D.C. has been allowed to endure.