Decision to honour Barack and Michelle Obama criticised by religious groups amid row over US impact on Middle East
By David Smith, Libreville, Gabon *
Bestowing an honour on America’s first black president might seem an uncontroversial choice for post-apartheid South Africa. But what was good enough for the Nobel peace prize committee is just the latest trigger for acrimony in the polarised city of Cape Town.
Its decision to grant president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, the freedom of the city has provoked a growing backlash from rival parties, churches, Muslim groups and trade unions, who branded it a “political gimmick”.
They warn that if the couple ever set foot in Cape Town to accept the award, they will be greeted by mass protests drawing attention to America’s human rights record.
The dispute began a month ago when Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town and member of South Africa‘s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), announced the nomination of the Obamas for the city’s highest accolade.
“For this city, as for the entire world, president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are the guiding stars to our eventual destination,” she said. “In a cynical age, there is a desperate need for universal hope – hope that acts as a reminder that, no matter what the odds, even the supposedly unattainable is within our grasp.”
“Freemen of the city” include Nelson Mandela and the archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, she added.
Michelle Obama had travelled to Cape Town last year during a tour of Africa.
To some the award seemed in keeping with a longstanding relationship between the US civil rights and South African liberation movements: Obama has recalled that his first taste of political activism was speaking at an anti-apartheid rally. In the immediate afterglow of his 2008 election victory, it may have struck a popular chord. Now, however, South Africans have doubts.
Tony Ehrenreich, the provincial secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions in western Cape, said it was “appalled” at the award, citing “the atrocious behaviour of the USA on the Palestinian question, and their endorsement of Israel aggression against the people of Palestine.”
Ehrenreich, who as the candidate of the governing African National Congress (ANC) was defeated by De Lille in the last mayoral election, accused her of ignoring the majority of Capetonians. “Obama has done nothing for the city of Cape Town that in our view deserves the freedom of the city, as he does not represent the value system of the city people of justice and fairness.”
In a joint letter to president Jacob Zuma, two Islamic organisations, the Media Review Network (MRN) and Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), said they were “astonished and dumbfounded” by De Lille’s decision.
“Obama’s intimate role in authorising US drone attacks overseas is a cold-blooded account of how he and his disciples in Washington decide on who will live and who must die,” they wrote. “Innocent Pakistani, Yemeni, Somali and Afghani civilians have lost their lives or have suffered traumatic injuries that have changed their lives for ever.”
The National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union also condemned the move. “We are totally opposed to this because the majority of the poor people of Cape Town are still treated like outsiders in their own city and nothing has been done by Ms De Lille to narrow the huge inequality gap that exist between the rich and the poor,” it said.
De Lille’s office said the Obamas would still be given the award because more than 60% of the city council voted in favour.
Brooks Spector, a journalist and former US diplomat based in South Africa, said: “Perhaps the originators of this choice seem to have wanted to link to the assumed popularity of the Obamas – and especially Michelle Obama – without thinking through how this would become a politically controversial, touchy issue for them. Now they are caught in a dilemma: if they go forward, it is a convenient thing for the DA-run city to be criticised on; if they withdraw their offer, they look weak or indecisive.”
*Culled from guardian.co.uk