Why South Africa’s ‘NO-Bama Coalition’ is protesting Obama’s visit

June 28, 2013

South Africans gather outside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria to protest President Obama's visit. (Stephanie De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

It's hard to take Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the spokesperson of the South African wing of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, too seriously when he says that President Obama will be welcomed by "the mother of all protests" when he visits a University of Johannesburg campus Saturday. After all, both Obama and the United States are very popular in South Africa: Recent data from Pew found 74 percent confidence in Obama there, nearly double George W. Bush's 32 percent.

Still, there is a segment of South Africa that is not happy to see Obama visiting their country and are planning several protests, some of which have already begun. There's been such an outcry within the University of Johannesburg at Soweto, where Obama will visit to receive an honorary degree, that university officials have defended the move by saying that the degree will recognize only Obama's personal merit and not necessarily endorse his leadership of U.S. foreign policy. On Friday, Daniel Howden, a reporter with the Independent, said on Twitter that 300 protesters had gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Pretoria, denouncing Obama. He posted a photo showing them burning an American flag. The Muslim Lawyers Association of South Africa called on the South African government to arrest Obama on "war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide." It's joined with two dozen other left-wing national organizations, including student groups, the country's communist party and one of its most powerful trade unions in the "NO-Bama Coalition" protesting his arrival.

A senior member of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (sometimes called Cosatu) said, according to the New York Times, that Obama's election had signalled "promise for change of policy" but that the U.S. president "continues to be arrogant, and his policies continue to entrench American power to the whole globe without any change." A Times story noting the protests called them another sign that "the country’s longstanding skittishness about American foreign and trade policies has overridden its brief elation over the election of the first black president in the United States."

These groups do not appear to represent the majority of South Africans who, as suggested by the Pew survey data, view Obama quite favorably. But they do represent an intersection of left-wing and nationalist politics in the country, as well as a skepticism of Western foreign policy rooted in the country's struggle to end apartheid. For much of the 1980s, the United Kingdom and United States were perceived by some South Africans, not wholly without reason, as tolerating the apartheid government. That may help explain why some of Obama's critics in South Africa criticize him for supporting the "apartheid state" of Israel. The groups also cite U.S. drone strikes and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

There is also a sense that the U.S. is part of the economic forces that contribute to what critics say are poor workers' protections in South Africa and growing corruption, symbolized for many by the August 2012 platinum mine protests that ended with police shooting and killing 34 mine workers. A spokesman for the "NO-Bama Coalition," which includes South Africa's communist party, accused the Obama administration of "guzzling of world resources at the expense of the environment and oppressed peoples of the world."

The New York Times asked Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, to comment on the protests; he would only say that South Africa "is a vibrant democracy."

Be sure to follow the Washington Post's ongoing coverage of Obama's Africa trip.

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Max Fisher · June 28, 2013