South Africa

SA’s new political tool: Freedom of Cape Town for the Obamas

By Osiame Molefe 10 June 2012

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille is under fire for her decision to award Barack and Michelle Obama the freedom of the city. A few years ago, at the height of Obamamania, the decision to hop aboard the “hope” wagon might have still been surprising, but it would certainly have been less controversial. By OSIAME MOLEFE

Much of the sparkle has disappeared from US President Barack Obama’s message of hope, which he used in his lauded 2008 presidential campaign. So successful was the messaging that even before he was announced the eventual winner of the presidential race, Obama beat out the likes of Apple and Nike to Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008.

Fast forward four years, a few wars and a global economic crisis later, brand Obama has lost its sheen not only domestically, where the latest Gallup poll gives him a below-average 46% approval rating, but also globally. Such is the decline that the City of Cape Town’s surprising decision to award the Nobel laureate and first lady Michelle Obama the freedom of the city for the hope and inspiration they have provided the city and world has proved divisive.

The award (previous recipients include archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and former president Nelson Mandela) is usually given to those who have performed some civic service to the city and community. However, other than Michelle Obama’s visit to Cape Town in 2011, the Obamas have no obvious link to Cape Town or its residents, or even to South Africa.

In a statement released immediately after mayor Patricia de Lille’s announcement of the award in May, the Muslim Judicial Council criticised Obama’s Middle East policy, particularly with regard to his handling of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and his administration’s controversial use of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. De Lille should seriously reconsider her announcement and reflect logically on whether Obama’s integrity and track record warrant the award, the MJC’s media liaison Nabewenya Malick said. 

The campaign against awarding the honour to the Obamas has since picked up steam with trade union federation Cosatu last week announcing it would mobilise mass action should the Obamas come to Cape Town to accept the award. The union’s Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, said not only had De Lille not consulted members of the community before proposing the award to the city’s rules committee, the decision had already been made by the time it was announced.

So far the campaign to oppose the award has garnered support from the SA Council of Churches, the SA NGO Coalition and opposition parties, including the ANC, PAC, Cope, UDM and the National Party.

De Lille’s spokesman, Solly Malatsi, explained that the rules committee, which approved the award by majority decision, was multi-party, so the political opposition was surprising. He said the Obamas hadn’t garnered the award for their politics, but for the inspiration they have been in overcoming divisions, something Cape Town is striving to do.

But the award, coming much too late to tap into any feel-good sentiment Obama generated in his meteoric rise, appears to have done the opposite.

Ehrenreich said the coalition of political parties and organisations opposed to the award would appeal to the national government to intervene in the decision, which he claimed was divisive and did not enjoy the support of the majority of Capetonians.

The Muslim council last week also reached out to the national government in a letter to President Jacob Zuma. In the letter, the MJC accused the DA-led administration in Cape Town of putting the country in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation by asking for national-government ratification of the award. According to MJC president Ighsaan Hendricks, whatever action national government takes regarding the award, an international row is guaranteed.

Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj confirmed that the matter is being dealt with by the co-operative governance department, which he said were in discussions with the City of Cape Town.

Malatsi said the city intended to proceed with the award and was adamant correct procedures had been followed. DM

Photo: Michelle Obama in Cape Town (REUTERS)


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