Bestowing an honor on the US’ first black president might seem an uncontroversial choice for post-apartheid South Africa. However, what was good enough for the Nobel peace prize committee is just the latest trigger for acrimony in the polarized city of Cape Town.
Its decision to grant US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, 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 say that if the couple ever set foot in Cape Town to accept the award, they will be greeted by mass protests drawing attention to the US’ human rights record.
The dispute began a month ago when Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, a 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.”
Michelle Obama had traveled 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: Barack 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 he was “appalled” at the award, citing “the atrocious behavior 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,” Ehrenreich said.