Events have shown that terrorists were able to circumvent South African authorities by trafficking essential documents like passports and by being able to enter the country, thus highlighting the ineffectiveness of some of South African organizations. More recent events in Zimbabwe have also shown a lack of border control by South Africa, which is a worry to the US. Kurt Shillinger also points out that the South African constitution is a problem in the war against Islamic extremism because there are numerous legal ways to stay in South Africa.
South Africa’s concerns over America and the “war”
When it comes to America’s war against Islamic extremism, one of the most vital issues from the South African perspective is the historical relationship between the US and the ANC. South African history has shown it is not always easy to distinguish between two opposing sides; hence the term one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Current South African government officials may also recall that during the Reagan years alone, South African attacks against the neighboring countries with the help of the US and the UK killed thousands of people and devastated multiple areas. The history, and the labeling of the ANC in particular, was a thorn in the flesh of South Africa officials for a long time and it certainly complicated relations. How could the ANC be expected to act against “terrorists” when they themselves were defined that way?
The wound from the thorn has slowly begin to heal since July 1, 2008 when the Anti-apartheid Visa Bill law was passed by US President Bush, authorizing the US government to lift the stigma against South Africa members of ANC wishing to travel to the US. The issue had been a problem since 1994 reaching borderline absurdity in 2007, when Barbara Masekela, South Africa’s ambassador to the US from 2002 to 2006, was denied a visa to visit her ailing cousin and did not receive a waiver until after her cousin had died. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called the previous designation “embarrassing” at the time. “This is a country with which we now have excellent relations, South Africa, but it’s frankly a rather embarrassing matter that I still have to waive in my own counterpart, the foreign minister of South Africa, not to mention the great leader Nelson Mandela,” Rice told a Senate committee in April 2008.
Nevertheless, it is clear that South Africa is no stranger when in comes to Islamic extremism. It made its initial acquaintance while FW de Klerk was still President, when friendly Arab governments warned that known Islamic radicals (whose movements they apparently monitored) were entering South Africa to set up religious academies for the purposes of indoctrination. According to former South African ambassador Victor Zazeraj, South Africa was well advanced into the new political situation at the time, and all major government decisions were already being dealt with by a multiparty Transitional Executive Council (TEC). Moreover, the warnings were “fed into the system”, so to speak, but South Africa had other more immediate problems: there were many uncertainties about the country’s future and all kinds of groups threatening to disrupt proceedings, so it is suspected these warnings went onto the backburner and never surfaced again.
From the South African point of view, it was and is fully cognizant of what is occurring within their borders. In March 2007, reports surfaced of paramilitary camps, extremist activities and extraordinary renditions of jihadi suspects in South Africa. Then on March 13, Barry Gilder, coordinator of South Africa’s National Intelligence Coordinating Committee, indicated that terrorists with links to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan were increasingly spending time in the country. Coinciding with Gilder’s remarks, a Johannesburg magazine featured an expose of an alleged jihadi training facility outside Port Elizabeth. James Sanders wrote the feature and provided pictures of the property—including images of a shooting range and makeshift mosque. South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils also responded to the CIA report three years earlier by saying: “That is nothing new. Even before 9/11, there was a [al-Qaeda] presence.” Kasrils was referring to al-Qaeda bomber Khalfan Mohammed.
Kasrils mentioning of 9/11 is important, as South Africa witnessed the strong impact the event had on America and its foreign policy. The first official South African government statement described the events as “terror attacks.” The statement said that South African president Thabo Mbeki learnt “with shock and dismay” of the attacks and the South African government “joins the world in unreservedly denouncing these senseless and horrific attacks.” A former high-level government official in the Bush administration recalls that Mandela phoned Bush and offered his support and condolences. Furthermore, the South African government expressed “its confidence that the United States’ authorities will ensure the perpetrators face the full might of the law.” The ANC’s official response was one of absolute condemnation.
The South African government was concerned, however, about how the US would choose to respond to the attacks. On America’s military actions in Afghanistan, the government reaffirmed “its unequivocal condemnation of the terrorist attacks on various cities of the USA” and recognized the right of America to “seek out those responsible for those acts of terror”, but reiterated the need for “hard evidence” to precede harsh actions, and of the importance of caution to prevent the deaths of civilians. Thus the South African government’s official response to the 9/11 attacks can be said to be one of outright condemnation, but not one of absolute support for America’s retaliatory actions.
As we all know, official government statements often do not reveal the feelings that are far closer to the truth. For example, Eastern Cape Premier, Makhenkesi Stofile’s responded to the attacks by saying: “I do not know for sure that these are acts of terror. They could be guerrilla tactics fighting for something. In that case, guerrillas use small units as a tactic not as an act of cowardice. These are the same tactics the ANC used and we too were labeled as terrorists.” Speaker of Parliament, Frene Ginwala’s comments said that the attackers were driven by despair as a result of America’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue with regard to various issues.
Regardless, on 12 September, the US embassy in Pretoria thanked South Africans for their support. “We have been deeply touched by the outpouring of support and sympathy from the South African people,” US Charge d’Affairs Steve Buckler told people outside the embassy. South African residents laid dozens of wreaths or bouquets at the front gate and more than 50 people also signed a condolence book at the gate, writing messages of support for the American people. Many South Africans had also offered to donate blood.
Bush allegedly telephoned Mbeki a week later (on September 19), but had not asked South Africa for military support, according to South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Dlamini-Zuma was quite stern from the beginning that South Africa would not commit military resources. “We are not considering that option. It was not raised. In our own approach on how terrorism should be fought a military option is not in the offing right now,” she told reporters. Minister in the Presidency, Essop Pahad, said Bush telephoned at about 2pm (South African time) and had thanked South Africa and the government for its support. Bush had repeated that America could not stamp out terrorism alone, and that a global coalition was necessary. In addition, Bush emphasized that his country and government was not against Islam or Arabs, and that there was no “collective guilt” approach to any people.
In a South African meeting to discuss the attacks, government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said the meeting had begun with a minute of silence in honor of the late Govan Mbeki (Mbeki’s father) and the victims of the 9/11 attacks. South Africa would cooperate with all effort to apprehend the culprits and bring them to book, Netshitenzhe said.
The 9/11 attacks brought South Africa’s two largest Muslim groups, PAGAD and Qibla back into the media spotlight. Koos van der Merve, a former South African National Defence Force intelligence official, revealed: “Qibla has about 260 members. They are tightly knit and exist in cells of about six or less in number. Some Qibla members are top leaders inside PAGAD. They use radio station 786 to spew anti-Western venom and recruit new terrorists.” Adriana Stuijt, a Dutch journalist and former anti-apartheid activist, stated that terrorist attacks would likely increase in number. Stuijt added:
Journalists like myself inside South Africa have been warning US government officials inside South Africa for the past nine years about the incredibly volatile anti-American sentiments and the dangers they represent to all pro-Westerners.… I, in fact, attended many meetings even inside mosques in which this hatred was preached constantly and consistently throughout my reporting years, and I have also reported how it has been growing in intensity ever since then.
Another shock came on November 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens shortly after taking off from JFK International Airport in New York. There were immediate concerns that this was a terrorist attack and people looked to the White House for answers. Bush was meeting with Mandela in Washington at the time when he received the news of the plane crash. Mandela expressed his deepest sympathies in the press briefing. He added: “But I know you have quite a strong leader, and the people of the United States of America can face disaster, and I’m sure that they will overcome this unfortunate incident.” Mandela offered his support for American actions in Afghanistan stating: “The United States of America lost 5,000 people, innocent people, and it is quite correct for the President to ensure that the terrorists, those masterminds, as well as those who have executed the action and survived, are to be punished heavily.”
South Africa had a major concern about what was being perceived as Muslims and Christians being involved in a fight for global superiority. This topic began to make headlines in their country’s newspapers. Professor Peter Vale raised the question of whether or not a country like South Africa, where each of a thousand social balances are delicately poised, could tip one way or the other on an issue like this. Vale, answering his own question, said the plain truth is it could not. Vale wrote that South Africa’s concern should be with humanity: “with those who died in New York, with those who needlessly perished in Afghanistan and the many lives that this crusade now threatens.” It was also pointed out that the South African government must jog the memories of how, in the years following World War II, a coalition not very different to the present one embraced the apartheid government for 46 years and how easy it was for them to believe that Nelson Mandela should be imprisoned for 27 of them because he was a communist. Vale was essentially saying South Africa should be careful how far they lean and to which side (i.e., towards the US or towards the right for people to fight for their freedom).
South Africa has continuously held the view that issues such as terrorism should be dealt with through the United Nations (UN) and related organizations. Describing the terrorist attack in Bali in October 2002 that killed more than 180 people, as well as the attacks in the Philippines, Yemen and Kuwait, Pahad said South Africa would have to deal with these new challenges through the UN and similar bodies. Briefing the media on the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Annual Report, Pahad said South Africa would maintain its broader mission of campaigning for greater equity between North and South and for the strengthening of multilateral organizations, which had been weakened since the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11 last year. In addition, he said the period after the 9/11 attacks had brought new challenges and the need to deal with concepts such as the “axis of evil”, the clash of civilizations, regime change, and whether “you are for or against us.”