The US has remained mum on the detention of
ANC MP and former minister of human
settlements, Tokyo Sexwale at John F Kennedy
International Airport in New York on Sunday.
Sexwale’s detention is believed to have
stemmed from the US government designation
of the ANC as a terrorist organisation during its
struggle against Apartheid.
Former US President Ronald Reagan once described
the ANC as “a notorious terrorist group”. Reagan had
previously explained in an interview with US
broadcaster CBS that he was loyal to the Apartheid
regime because South Africa was “a country that has
stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country
that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its
production of minerals.”
Reagan’s logic appeared to amount to the old phrase:
the enemy of my friend is also my enemy.
His administration characterised the ANC as
dangerous and pro-communist while the Apartheid
government of the 1980s were viewed as moderates
who were serious about implementing reforms.
“It was just continuing this notion that the ANC
members are the extremists and the South African
government has these moderates, and you’re going
to end up with one extreme against the other if you
don’t work with the government. Clearly, it never
worked. This was a flawed policy,” David Schmitz, a
historian at Whitman College told Salon.
When Desmond Tutu visited the United States in
1984 after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he
said Reagan’s policy was “immoral, evil and totally
Schmitz notes that while Reagan’s attitudes had not
altered, the official US policy on South Africa did.
Congress eventually pushed through a bill slapping
sanctions against South Africa.
The ANC, however, were still not in favour with the
US government. In 1989, a Pentagon report that
listed the ANC, as a terrorist organisation and was
described by the New York Times to have “touched
off a furore in South Africa”.
The State Department subsequently denied the US
saw the ANC as terrorists at all.
The State Department spokesman of the time,
Charles E. Redman, quoted by the New York Times,
said, ”The United States Government has not
determined that the ANC is a terrorist organization.”
He said the United States endorsed some of the
group’s political objectives, ”such as ending
apartheid and establishing a non-racial system of
government in South Africa” but added, ”We
strongly differ with the ANC on some of the methods
they have used to pursue these objectives, including
the use of violence. Both publicly and in private
contacts with the ANC, we have repeatedly
condemned tactics such as the intentional placing of
bombs in public places which results in civilian
And yet it’s unclear when exactly the ANC and its
members were actually placed on the US
government’s terrorist watch list. What is beyond
doubt is that the organisation and its members
remained on some iteration of that list long after the
ANC had been unbanned.
Thus, former president Nelson Mandela remained on
the American terrorist blacklist for years after he was
freed from prison. Mandela and other members of the
ANC, had to obtain a special waiver to enter the
In 2008, Mandela and the ANC were removed from
the list after former US president George W. Bush
signed into law a bill that repudiated the “terrorist
status” of Mandela and the ANC.
The law “authorises the Departments of State and
Homeland Security to determine that provisions in
the Immigration and Nationality Act that render
aliens inadmissible due to terrorist or criminal
activities would not apply with respect to activities
undertaken in association with the African National
Congress in opposition to apartheid rule in South
By US law then, Sexwale should then have been able
to enter and leave the US without any problems.
But according to South Africa’s ambassador to the
US, Ebrahim Rasool, the law did not remove everyone
from the list. The South African government has been
able to negotiate a temporary compromise of an
override when VIPs travel to the US – in Sexwale’s
case however, that override expired when he ceased
to be a minister.
The South African government says it has repeatedly
asked American authorities to address the presence
of ANC members on its terror watch list.
“The South African government has repeatedly
raised this matter with the US and will continue until
this matter is sorted,” spokesperson for the
Department of International Relations and Co-
Operation, Clayson Monyela, said on Monday.
One Reuters columnist, Bernd Debusmann, blames
such bungling of the US terror lists on “bureaucratic
“Bureaucratic inertia is as good an explanation as
any and a look at the current list of what is officially
labelled Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs)
suggests that once a group earns the designation, it
is difficult to shake,” Debusmann says.
And yet, Howard Berman, a US lawmaker who was
the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign
Affairs and who proposed the legislation that
repudiated the ANC’s terrorist status in the US, said
that this was legislation actually passed after the
terror attacks of September 11, 2001, that this had
further complicated the status of the ANC in the US.
“Increasingly stringent security measures passed by
Congress after the attacks of September 11, 2001
preserved the ANC’s ‘terrorist’ label because it had
used armed force as part of its campaign against
apartheid,” Berman said.
This, of course, would explain why Sexwale’s
application for a visa in 2002 was subject to a delay
that the ANC termed “unacceptable” when he had
previously visited the US.
At the time a spokesperson for the US embassy
denied that the ANC appeared on any official list of
When he proposed the legislation lifting the status,
Berman said, “Despite recognizing two decades ago
that America’s place was on the side of those
oppressed by apartheid, Congress has never resolved
the inconsistency in our immigration code that treats
many of those who actively opposed apartheid in
South Africa as terrorists and criminals, in part
because the apartheid regime labeled them as such.”
According to Berman, the laws blacklisting the ANC
were an embarrassing remnant of Washington’s
“much too cozy” relationship with the former
apartheid government of South Africa.
And certainly with Sexwale’s detention at JFK, further
cements that embarrassment for the US.
The US has remained mum on the detention of