The death of Osama bin Laden was different things to different people: a legitimate action, an extra-judicial killing, a murder, revenge, a justifiable homicide, an execution. Still, we’ve been struck by the responses of our own main political formations. What does this tell us about our ruling class and its view of the world? And its relationship to all things American? By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Monday, as South Africans awoke to the news that Osama bin Laden was dead, much of the reportage consumed here was, inevitably, American. CNN in particular, along with Sky (nominally British) would have been on in many homes. For many domestic media outlets, the tone would have been set by these organisations. There was a bit of celebration on CNN, certainly, depending on your view, a little bit of joining in with those who chanted “USA, USA” outside the White House. Trying to find a voice saddened by the death was tricky, as it should be. This is not a story in which you necessarily get both sides, they cannot be equal. Which is why the ANC’s statement on the matter, that arrived later in the day, was so odd.
Here it is in full:
“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.”
That’s it. Note the fact that there’s “no justification for the use of violence” in the first paragraph. They failed to tackle the tough issue; they simply ducked it.
Cosatu went even further, with a much longer statement but the money bite was this: “Cosatu is, however, 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.”
Government’s reaction was – unsurprisingly – very similar to the ANC’s, without the condemnation of violence, and with a line about the “demon of terrorism”. The person who wrote the ANC’s statement was Ebrahim Ebrahim, who moonlights as deputy minister of international relations.
The ANC and government have always steered clear of giving any sort of opinion on the Bin Laden issue, except to condemn acts of violence in general terms; this has to be a mistake. It’s about the concept of moral equivalence, which simply doesn’t apply here. The ANC is saying the US was wrong to shoot Bin Laden dead; that’s okay. It’s reasonable to have a problem with someone being shot in the head, as US President Barack Obama put it “after a firefight”, which means it was an execution. But it was certainly a justifiable one. Using this odd logic, if the ANC could go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler in 1934, it wouldn’t do so, because that would be using violence. And while one must always be careful of the “terrorist and the time-bomb” scenario (a philosophical device in which you must answer the question, when is torture justified) it is obvious that the right course would have been to kill him. And you cannot blame the US for doing it. Even if it is now clear there was a standing order to kill no matter what. It is impossible to debate issues and find peaceful solutions when you’re faced with a cold-blooded murderer.
There are some, even in our own communities, who’ve claimed Bin Laden wasn’t given a hearing. He didn’t need one. Not because he was somehow different to the rest of us, but because, in claiming responsibility for the attacks, he’d already admitted guilt. It wasn’t that he agreed with killing, or thought terrorist plots were a good idea and played along. It was because he had actually planned them, ensured his plans were implemented and then went on TV and boasted about it. So the argument he needed a trial is fatally weakened there.
No, what this really tells us, is that the ANC and Cosatu are fighting another battle. It’s one in which there is a knee-jerk “no” to anything the US does. Despite the fact, to horribly paraphrase Cecil John Rhodes, that nowadays to “be born American is to win first prize in the lottery of life”. There can be no other reason. Should Bin Laden have been killed? Yes. Did he deserve to die? Surely. So instead, what these organisations have done is to fight that other battle, over Iraq, and the newer one, over dominance in Africa, all over again. We’re not saying the US was right to invade Iraq, but that’s not the issue in Bin Laden’s death. It’s irrelevant. And for Cosatu to try linking this incident to what’s happening in Libya is simply wrong.
This is about organisations that contain people who really do believe the US is the enemy; and that the quaint and useful USSR-era scare crows, like imperialism go hand-in-hand with them. In their world view, the US is evil.
But before you condemn them outright, think about it from their point of view: This is about the fact Reagan opposed sanctions against SA, it’s about all those years when it was the Soviets who succoured the ANC, it’s about the conspiracy theory the US is a colonising imperial power that’s trying to use the MDC to infiltrate Zimbabwe. Laugh if you like, but there are times when American foreign policy has provided plenty of ammunition for these views; eight years of George W Bush will take decades to heal, if ever.
However, don’t think for a moment that our government doesn’t work with the Americans when it wants to, or when realpolitik demands it. Firstly, there was our decision to support the United Nations’ no-fly zone over Libya. Then, much more interestingly, was the Khalid Rashid case. This was a man who was a Pakistani national who went missing in November 2005. There was talk of helicopters, American accents, bright lights at the house where he was living. Then he was found in Pakistan several months later. Our government said it was an immigration issue, and was dealt with in the normal way. Which was, well, bollocks. Rashid was thought to be a member of al Qaeda. So when the chips are down, the ANC does have a way of realising what it is dealing with.
The reaction of Cosatu and the ANC could have been many things to their base; they may have been politically clever in a short term. Which may cost South Africa dearly in the near future. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: Newspaper headlines and clippings are posted on a wall inside a staff office at the White House in Washington May 2, 2011, the morning after U.S. President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. REUTERS/Jason Reed.
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