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Refugees, the American dream and a war for Cape freedom

By Shafinaaz Hassim

It seems as though, just like tragic Alice in Wander-land, we’ve all fallen down some obscure rabbit hole in South Africa. It’s not impossible, given our national heritage of mining shafts, and it must have happened at some point during the last few weeks while toyi-toying in Twitterville or outside the ConCourt and Goodman Gallery. Not only have we given Freud’s delighted corpse much to be thrilled about as a national case study, thrown mud at art and dignity (courtesy of the Spear episode), but we’ve now gone and nominated an international warlord for high honour. I’m referring to the DA’s call to award the Obamas the freedom of the city of Cape Town.

If Cape Town were to chip off the coast of Southern Africa and float off into the setting sun as it were, I’d be less likely to care. Seeing as it will remain a beautiful appendage to this continent and country, I’d rather covet my occasional refugee status and not hold my peace.

Browsing an article by local newsman Azhar Vadi, I stumbled on a quoted piece by Peter L. Bergen writing in the New York Times on April 28 2012, where he noted in his opening lines that, “The president who won the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months after his inauguration has turned out to be one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.” Ironically he notes, “The president used the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech as an occasion to articulate his philosophy of war. He made it very clear that his opposition to the Iraq war didn’t mean that he embraced pacifism — not at all.”

What do South Africans have to say about it?

A letter to the presidency via the Media Review Network/Muslim Judicial Council outlines the Obama mantra as one of ‘permanent war’ accompanied by zero accountability. US foreign policy leaves much to be desired, and the Obama administration both inherited and duly contributed to a legacy of war and pillage.

Nehawu adamantly calls for the freedom of Cape Town “to be given to the poor, majority black disenfranchised people of South Africa, instead of awarding it to the weak-willed Barack Obama”. Their letter condemns the DA’s move as elitist and narrow in its intent. Nehawu also attacks the DA-led municipality as “hypocritical and opportunistic”, saying that “they want to award the freedom of the city to a ‘spineless’ celebrity politician and his wife while at the same time their leader Helen Zille is lamenting about poor South Africans flooding the city of Cape Town. Grandiose and superficial gestures to the leaders of the Western world cannot mask the failure of the Cape Town municipality to deliver services to its most vulnerable citizens.”

It begs asking what it is that the DA has in its agenda when it alienates the common(er) South African on the other side of the picket ‘fence’ – I daren’t opt for a colour – and seeks to bestow a somewhat tokenistic honour on the US president and first lady. Cosatu states that this reduces an important occasion for the city into a mere political gimmick on the part of the DA for media limelight and it condemns the waste of public funds to this end. Further, Cosatu takes seriously that it serves as a deflection from service delivery protests and engenders division within a city already divided by race and inequality.

If the occasion of honour suggested by the award of freedom of the Cape is meant to build harmony and cohesion in the city, the data certainly doesn’t suggest consensus. But it remains to be seen: will South Africans speak out in condemning the request?

Are claims that corporate South Africa holds the cards in this game to be given much weight? Are further claims worthy of note, that the tug of war between this request by the DA and the feverish condemnation of civil society are really a ploy to put the presidency in the proverbial corner with this decision? Will this be the case? Will South Africans unilaterally condemn the call as unsubstantiated? Most of all, when the recommendation is brought to council, what will President Zuma’s position be?

Shafinaaz Hassim is a South African author and poet. Her works include “Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion – A South African Perspective” (2007), “Memoirs For Kimya” (2009) and “Belly of Fire” (2011). Her research focuses on biographical narrative in the interplay between personal and political spaces and, to this end, she writes both fiction and non-fiction. She has lectured and presented seminars at UKZN in Durban, and Humboldt University in Berlin. She currently lectures in sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

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