Obama visit splits ANC alliance

2013-06-30 06:00

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State takes diplomatic route as tripartite partners protest.

Internal differences in the governing alliance about how to express ANC policy towards the US surfaced this week as the SA Communist Party (SACP) and trade union federation Cosatu affiliates took to the streets to protest against US President Barack Obama’s visit.

Obama’s election in 2008 was hailed by the ANC and its allies.

While ANC leaders in government resolved to take a diplomatic stance, protesters led by Young Communist League general secretary and ANC MP Buti Manamela, SACP deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila and ANC Youth League task team convenor Mzwandile Masina burnt the American flag in a protest in Pretoria on Friday.

Senior SACP leaders such as Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, were notably absent from the state banquet in Obama’s honour last night, although Transport Minister Ben Martins, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies and Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, who all serve on the party’s central committee, were there.

Some SACP ministers are said to have experienced a moral dilemma over whether they could attend the dinner while members of their party protested against Obama.

Although the ANC has stated peaceful protests were acceptable, a senior ANC national executive committee member expressed his irritation at the protesters, saying it would be “childish to play with politics of such an important global nature”.

He added that South Africa had billions of dollars of business with America.

“It is very easy for Cosatu to go on strike, but terribly difficult for the ANC when some of the people supposed to be allies are not understanding the cause.”

Both Manamela and the head of the ANC’s subcommittee on international relations, Obed Bapela (also deputy minister in the presidency), confirmed there were no formal talks between the ANC and its alliance partners about the matter.

Bapela said there was “not even a discussion (about Obama’s visit within the ANC) because the ANC is the ruling party on behalf of the people of South Africa, not only on behalf of its members”.

“We relate to a number of states in the world, irrespective of ideological positioning,” he said.

Bapela said as long as a head of state was legitimately elected by the people of his or her country, South Africa would speak to them.

He said the Obama visit “is good for the national interest of South Africa”. South Africa also cooperates with the US on international platforms.

Bapela said the ANC agreed with the protesters on a policy level, but said the protesters “decided to go to the street” while the ANC dealt with the issues diplomatically.

“The ANC said you can go on the street with your protest, we must relate with US as a country. Cosatu and the others are right to use protest, but we will use the platform of diplomacy.”

He said the issues on which the ANC agreed with the protesters are the aggressive stance of the US towards Iran and Iraq, the detention of terror suspects without trial, the US’s continued support for Israel (South Africa believes Palestine is entitled to sovereignty), the US’s nuclear programme and its Africa Command (Africom), which South Africa actively lobbied against, and climate change.

But Bapela said Obama’s visit was significant. “It is a victory for Obama to come to you because they always want you to come to them. If the president of the biggest economy comes to you, it shows how significant you are as an economy.”

China and Russia had also previously visited South Africa.

Manamela said the protests weren’t about not wanting Obama to visit.

“I think we welcome Mr Barack Obama as a person, but the person who we really are expressing our anger and frustration (against), and who we are raising concerns against, is the president of the USA.”

He said the protesters accepted South Africa had to meet him on a “government level” and the country had to engage in trade relations with Americans.

“So, it is more about highlighting the issues,” he said.

Manamela added that, on a foreign policy level since 1994, “government has taken on a more diplomatic role, while the ANC policy is more expressive of its historic positions”.

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