South Africa

Sexwale’s US arrest: old ghosts and a study in bureaucratic inertia?

By Khadija Patel 29 October 2013

The US has remained mum on the detention of ANC MP and former minister of human settlements, Tokyo Sexwale at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York on Sunday. Sexwale’s detention is believed to have stemmed from the US government designation of the ANC as a terrorist organisation during its struggle against Apartheid. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Former US President Ronald Reagan once described the ANC as “a notorious terrorist group”. Reagan had previously explained in an interview with US broadcaster CBS that he was loyal to the Apartheid regime because South Africa was “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals.”

Reagan’s logic appeared to amount to the old phrase: the enemy of my friend is also my enemy.

His administration characterised the ANC as dangerous and pro-communist while the Apartheid government of the 1980s were viewed as moderates who were serious about implementing reforms.

It was just continuing this notion that the ANC members are the extremists and the South African government has these moderates, and you’re going to end up with one extreme against the other if you don’t work with the government. Clearly, it never worked. This was a flawed policy,” David Schmitz, a historian at Whitman College told Salon.

When Desmond Tutu visited the United States in 1984 after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he said Reagan’s policy was “immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.”

Schmitz notes that while Reagan’s attitudes had not altered, the official US policy on South Africa did. Congress eventually pushed through a bill slapping sanctions against South Africa.

The ANC, however, were still not in favour with the US government. In 1989, a Pentagon report that listed the ANC, as a terrorist organisation and was described by the New York Times to have “touched off a furore in South Africa”.

The State Department subsequently denied the US saw the ANC as terrorists at all.

The State Department spokesman of the time, Charles E. Redman, quoted by the New York Times, said, ”The United States Government has not determined that the ANC is a terrorist organization.”

He said the United States endorsed some of the group’s political objectives, ”such as ending apartheid and establishing a non-racial system of government in South Africa” but added, ”We strongly differ with the ANC on some of the methods they have used to pursue these objectives, including the use of violence. Both publicly and in private contacts with the ANC, we have repeatedly condemned tactics such as the intentional placing of bombs in public places which results in civilian casualties.”

And yet it’s unclear when exactly the ANC and its members were actually placed on the US government’s terrorist watch list. What is beyond doubt is that the organisation and its members remained on some iteration of that list long after the ANC had been unbanned.

Thus, former president Nelson Mandela remained on the American terrorist blacklist for years after he was freed from prison. Mandela and other members of the ANC, had to obtain a special waiver to enter the United States.

In 2008, Mandela and the ANC were removed from the list after former US president George W. Bush signed into law a bill that repudiated the “terrorist status” of Mandela and the ANC.

The law “authorises the Departments of State and Homeland Security to determine that provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act that render aliens inadmissible due to terrorist or criminal activities would not apply with respect to activities undertaken in association with the African National Congress in opposition to apartheid rule in South Africa.”

By US law then, Sexwale should then have been able to enter and leave the US without any problems.

But according to South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, the law did not remove everyone from the list. The South African government has been able to negotiate a temporary compromise of an override when VIPs travel to the US – in Sexwale’s case however, that override expired when he ceased to be a minister.

The South African government says it has repeatedly asked American authorities to address the presence of ANC members on its terror watch list.

The South African government has repeatedly raised this matter with the US and will continue until this matter is sorted,” spokesperson for the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation, Clayson Monyela, said on Monday.

One Reuters columnist, Bernd Debusmann, blames such bungling of the US terror lists on “bureaucratic inertia”.

Bureaucratic inertia is as good an explanation as any and a look at the current list of what is officially labelled Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs) suggests that once a group earns the designation, it is difficult to shake,” Debusmann says.

And yet, Howard Berman, a US lawmaker who was the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and who proposed the legislation that repudiated the ANC’s terrorist status in the US, said that this was legislation actually passed after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, that this had further complicated the status of the ANC in the US.

Increasingly stringent security measures passed by Congress after the attacks of September 11, 2001 preserved the ANC’s ‘terrorist’ label because it had used armed force as part of its campaign against apartheid,” Berman said.

This, of course, would explain why Sexwale’s application for a visa in 2002 was subject to a delay that the ANC termed “unacceptable” when he had previously visited the US.

At the time a spokesperson for the US embassy denied that the ANC appeared on any official list of terrorist organisations.

When he proposed the legislation lifting the status, Berman said, “Despite recognizing two decades ago that America’s place was on the side of those oppressed by apartheid, Congress has never resolved the inconsistency in our immigration code that treats many of those who actively opposed apartheid in South Africa as terrorists and criminals, in part because the apartheid regime labeled them as such.”

According to Berman, the laws blacklisting the ANC were an embarrassing remnant of Washington’s “much too cozy” relationship with the former apartheid government of South Africa.

And certainly with Sexwale’s detention at JFK, further cements that embarrassment for the US. DM

Photo: Businessman Tokyo Sexwale addresses journalists in Cape Town October 25, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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