Obed Bapela on Dual Citizenship, ‘Imperialism’ & why the ANC’s not naive

Obed Bapela, Deputy Minister in the SA Presidency tells Tim Modise that Israel is an apartheid state that oppresses the Palestinians. He says this is why South Africa discourages dual citizenship of the local Jewish community. Bapela says the ANC is opposed to the imperialist agenda of the US and its allies, and therefore pledges solidarity with progressive movements and countries of the world. He denies that China is an emerging colonial power and rejects the criticism that the ANC is naïve in its understanding of the global politics – Tim Modise

Mr Obed Bapela, thanks very much for coming through and talking to us here about the International Relations Documents of the ANC. Let me start, right away, with the controversial side of the dual citizenship, which seems to target Israel specifically. The reaction has been less than impressive in that regard. What do hope to achieve with that part of the document?

Well, policies are there and they need to be reviewed from time to time. In this instance, we, as the African National Congress going through to the National General Council, have set up a discussion document that the branches are now engaged in discussing to come up with views and ideas. One of them is the dual citizenship obviously, because we have realised many abuses are taking place within our dual citizenship regime in South Africa. That is why we then put it in the public space for comments and discussions, and then we’ll hear and listen to all sides. As we conclude on the discussion, we’ll have weighed all the issues that people are raising. Unfortunately, the Jewish took it personally and they see it as an insult. I don’t think this topic should be avoided. It must be engaged. It must be discussed regardless of feelings and obviously, a sensitivity that goes with it. We’ll listen to them.

From the commentary that we’ve heard and some of the statements issued, it sounds as if you are specifically talking about dual citizenship inasmuch as it affects Israel. Is that the case?

It is not the case. We used Israel and the British as examples, and those were the two examples we gave as classic examples – fresh and happening – and that is why we pointed at them. Currently, the Jewish people who are citizens of South Africa leave and then adopt Israel as their homeland, as their right. We are not saying ‘no’ to it but once they are there, the laws of Israel prescribes that there is conscription for them in Israel, so they are forced to go to the army. Once you are in the army, it means that whatever the army does in Palestine, (which is now an issue with South African foreign policy that says ‘we support that Palestine is a free, independent nation) in line with the resolutions of the United Nations within the borders, which were defined as the borders of 1967. You look at what is happening in Palestine.

The Jewish settlements’ expansion taking the land of the Palestinians, bulldozing Palestinian houses, checkpoints, and the apartheid – all. You then say that this is in contrast to the South African policy and yet, if these young Jewish boys then go into the army, they are going to be persecuting the Palestinians (according to Israeli policy). Therefore, we are anti that policy and we call it the ‘apartheid policy’. It’s not the first ANC leader who has described what is happening in Palestine, as apartheid. The Deputy Chairperson of the ANC, Miss Baleka Mbete, went there. She came back and said, “There was even apartheid in Sunday school”. What she saw there was worse than what apartheid did to us. I was there in November last year. Indeed, it’s exactly like that – as it was described. It’s the policy.

It’s exactly…what?

It’s exactly, an apartheid era there. Whatever experiences we went through during apartheid – the issues of the youth, police, teargas, and the resistance that is going on…

Are you suggesting that Israel is running what one may call an apartheid state, or is imposing apartheid policies against Palestinians?

Against Palestinians, yes. Now the Jews are angry. They’re asking why I equate the Israeli state with an apartheid state. I think there’s a matter of debate and discussion on that one. We can engage and I think we are – strongly – of the view that indeed, they are. Why can’t they then put pressure on the Israeli state to implement the resolution of the United Nations? An independent Palestine, coexisting alongside the state of Israel, sharing the common capital (Jerusalem). Then we can deal with the issues of security so that no one attacks each other in that particular environment. If they can really move this one, we’ll definitely be on the side of that move. If Israel is part of the players, we’ll congratulate them and we’ll commend them on that particular issue as well.

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The Jewish community based here in South Africa, may argue with you and say they are not responsible for the policies of the Israeli government and that it’s a democratic state and governments change there from time to time. Therefore, it is not really themselves who are responsible for that, but the government (of the time) of Israel.

When they get their Israeli citizenship, (which is their right and we’re not stopping them from doing that) why do they go into the army? Why don’t they just protest conscription and say ‘no, my conscience says no and I cannot do it. I’m a South African citizen as well as a citizen of this country and therefore, I will not’? Unfortunately, they are not resisting. They are going in. They say it’s the law.

The other question I wanted to ask you, based on the discussions of dual citizenship is that there’s already a law in South Africa (of 1995). I think its Act 88.

There’s the 2010 Amendment to Law.

That changed the law of 1995 because in 1995, it said that a South African may not hold two citizenships, and that your citizenship in South Africa ceases the moment you adopt another country’s citizenship.

Well, that is for South Africans. However, in 2010 it was amended as long as that country in which you are opting for citizenship, allows a dual citizenship so we allow dual citizenship. Namibia then protested, saying ‘why are you giving Namibians dual citizenship. All Namibians need to own one – to be Namibian citizens – and that’s it’. They gave an example, which we hope will not happen when they said, “The day Namibia goes to war with South Africa, where will their loyalty be?” I think that was the question. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time and she then amended the law to say, “Only if that country allows dual citizenship but if it doesn’t, you must renounce the citizenship of that country before you can opt for our own citizenship”. Belgium also says no. In Belgium, if you want to take another citizenship, you lose your Belgian citizenship.

Other countries are doing it. It’s not as if South Africa is closing itself in the era of globalisation. Countries look at themselves. They look at the abuses that are there and I think that one of the abuse issues is ‘why join the army and join the wars of another nation’ and yet, you are South African.

Is dual citizenship allowed with BRICS countries? For instance, India and China, etcetera.

Well, I’m not sure about India and China because there are many Indians who came over 100 years ago. I’m not sure if they have dual citizenship, but they still go home. They regard it as their homeland/ancestral land. They go and they come back but I’m not sure whether it exists. We’ve established a task team that is now going to do research work for us. By the time we go to the NGC in October (of the ANC) we will then be able to get a comprehensive picture and engage them on the matter – the do’s and the don’ts -of dual citizenship is the way to go and we don’t have to tamper with it. Economic issues are included in that as well and people are raising fundamental issues. For example, the visas have made a dent in our tourism industry. If you are then going to come and cap the dual citizenship, it might also hurt South Africa economically, so we might have to be sensitive.

We’ll look at that particular issue though, because it’s not only Jewish or the British. There might be another grouping. One person says her daughter has decided to adopt the citizenship of the country where she was studying. She had gone to study there for a period of more than five years. She was offered citizenship. She accepted it and she said there are benefits. She’s still a South African, but she’s Canadian as well. In that way, there are benefits if you are Canadian. If we’ll kill it, we’ll then be disadvantaging a number of other people economically.

I want to talk about the rhetoric and the statements that are contained in the International Relations Document in as far as they apply to European countries, U.K., and the United States. They are said to be very emotive in nature and hostile to the former allies – well, still allies of South Africa. There’s talk of imperialism and the criticism of the United States. It actually ignores the stronger relations that South Africa has enjoyed with the United States. The economists actually take issue with those documents and say that they are unprincipled and they do not even serve the national interests. Your comment.

People forget so easily. Not long ago, the ANC described itself and its character as an anti-imperialist force. That’s who we are, in a democratic revolution characterisation of the movement, as a liberation organisation. We didn’t change. Post-apartheid, in a democracy, we still say that we remain a liberation movement, whilst also contesting in the political space and being a political party. The two co-exist within the African National Congress. We are an anti-imperialist force. In addition, we are the discipline force of the left, so we belong to the organisations around the left who still use Marx and Lenin in analysing society. We are also a ‘biased towards working class and pro-poor’ organisation. That’s the definition and the character of the African National Congress. When we look at the global world, we then begin to see who is on our side and who is not on our side, based on the definition of the African National Congress.

Indeed, imperialism is led by the U.S. in today’s world and therefore, all those who are allied with the U.S., would be described in a particular way in terms of the ideological positioning. Those who are anti-imperialism would then say they are with us and we define them in those particular terms. China is communist. Cuba is communist. In Europe, we’ve seen countries going up and down, being social democrats or sometimes, they lose the elections and conservatives take over. Those are the ideological bases of the political parties themselves. In the changing of the world, we see that we want to create a world that is fair, just, and equitable; where all nations are treated equally. Poverty is not a thing of the southern nations with only the north being rich and the south being poor. We want to balance and until the balance of the world, (hence the establishment of BRICS and other emerging institutions in the south against the established western concerns, such as the World Bank and the IBMF…

We have been struggling with many economies of the world. We say it should be a thing of the past so that we create a balance that can give us a new world order, a world order that is enjoyed by humanity.

The very argument goes on to say that, it’s preposterous on the part of the ANC to suggest that there is an agenda on the part of the United States, to destabilise Russia and to do so by implementing regime change in the Ukraine. That if anything, it is Russia and the government of Russia under President Vladimir Putin that needs to be condemned for their activities in the Ukraine. You hold a different view, as the ANC.

Definitely. Let’s take what happened in Libya. Who led the invasion of Libya there – the NATO forces of the United States? Then they removed the government. Yes, we had differences with Gaddafi. It’s fine. That’s could be an issue. What did you do then, though? Now, Libya is a failed state. Who is responsible for that? With Iraq, they said they went there to look for weapons of mass destruction. What is happening now? Now ISIS is blooming all over. Al-Qaeda was their establishment because they wanted to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan at the time and then the forces went out of control. The imperialist forces’ agenda want to dominate the world, control the world, and control anything that has oil. As long as there’s oil in those countries, they will employ any means to ensure that they take over and control and close the space for other forces, and not create a balance in the world.

Therefore, the imperialism agenda is still dominant in this world and being an anti-imperialist organisation ourselves, we cannot keep quiet. It’s very similar to the organisation led by Nelson Mandela, by the way. They tend to make the distinction that since Mandela left, the ANC has changed. The ANC has not changed, but remains what it is. It does not mean you don’t have friends in those parts of the world. It does not mean governments don’t talk and don’t engage each other. We do talk. We go to the United Nations. We’re members of the G20. We attend many meetings of multilateral fora/organisations. Indeed, the trading volumes continue flowing north/south, but the south is building new, alternative markets for themselves as well so that the balancing of the world can happen.

Going back to the earlier comment you made, are there documents for a Marxist/Leninist outlook and therefore, (on that basis) unto the United States?

Well, we use Marx for analysis, but we don’t use Marx in a classic, orthodox manner because we adopt a mixed economy in South Africa. Therefore, we took what is best and what can work for our nation and our national interest. Indeed, there are ideological issues that we definitely differ with on quite a number of issues but there are issues, which we agree on when it comes to trade issues. For example, GOA is an instrument of trade between Africa and the United States of America but with us, the treatment will be different because they see that South Africa is not the least-developed country. We are a middle-income country. When it comes to you on a GOA application, they’ll want trade. For example, the poultry was a big story in South Africa when they wanted to bring the chickens here and we said, “No. These are the requirements. You need to meet all those requirements”.

They said, “No, we cannot do that”. Otherwise, we’d just dump unfavourable chickens in our own market. We need to protect our market by all means, but let’s talk and engage. Now they’re also expanding this by saying ‘we will stop your cows from coming into the American market if you don’t give us beef/access to our market’. We say, “Quality of beef is regulated in South Africa and whomever brings beef; that is it”. It’s not just because you’re American that we’ll just allow it to come the way it is. We have to look at those particular issues. Just because we disagree, it doesn’t mean that we are imperialists. We are not imperialists. We are looking at what is best for the nations and what is best for our national interest. Ideologically, we may have some different issues but when it comes to the real matters of the world, we have quite a lot of cooperation with the U.S., Britain, and the other nations.

There is a view that the ANC is adopting a very short-term view in trying to advance its interests in how the world works and that its very naïve in its outlook on global matters. The common story told, is that China is the new colonial power and that the ANC (as a government) must be very careful of that fact. That as much as there is anti-imperialist rhetoric against the United States, sooner rather than later, it will realise that China is no different from former colonial powers.

Look, our relationship at an ideological level is one thing. However, it does not mean there are issues we don’t have differences with, with China. There are quite a lot. Currently, the trade between China and South Africa is cured. We take in raw materials. They bring in finished goods and it’s not the way an economy should be. It’s not sustainable in that way, because we’ll end up flushing the textile industry. That’s why we had to stand and protect our textile industry against the Chinese goods, and we had to increase tariffs on their goods so that they do not flood them into our markets and we’re able to support our own textile industry. We did that, so we know we’ll always have differing issues with them and it does not mean that China is dominant in our own space. Ideologically, we agree but there will always be differences around the way we look at each, practically. We are living in a globalised world and we as the African National Congress, are not naïve.

What we are saying is that we’re building an alternative agenda for the world, and that’s what we’re doing. Understand it for that. We want to build a progressive movement, which was dominant in the 1960’s with Brandt and the Social Democracy movement of the time. The world accepted with such a move to say it will bring another alternative agenda to the world. We are reviving that. We are rebuilding that. For the past 30 years, the liberal agenda has been dominant and with all the crashes happening – the economy has been going through crises – within them, imperialist liberal agendas. Who are the creators of this particular crisis in the world? It’s not a progressive movement. It’s the very imperialist forces, themselves but we want to build an alternative agenda and therefore, naiveté does not exist. During those early days, people would say we are taking chances.

‘There are 30 years’ worth of dominance of an agenda. How do you bring your own agenda and think that you’ll win?’ We’ll win one day – gradually – and people are beginning to retreat and re-look at themselves. They’ll definitely follow and they will support.

Briefly, ‘unprincipled and serving no interest’ – criticism from ‘The Economist’. What is your response to that criticism?

Can you repeat it?

The Economist says, ‘the agenda…the ideas around the foreign policy of the country do not serve any national interests and neither are they principled’. I just want a brief response from you, to that statement.

No. The national interest comes first for any nation. South Africa is engaging on defining its own national interest, which will be mobilising everybody to be behind those. China has its own national interests. America has its own and how you display them in the space is the way you will be articulating, engaging, and befriending people. We are definitely focused on building our own national interest and therefore, the principle remains that we will engage in order to fulfil our national interests (already encapsulated in the National Development Plan). In that National Development Plan, we just want to identify the critical issues so that we can say ‘these are the dos. We will not retreat on them. Whatever we do internationally…whatever we do on the continent, it is in our interest to fulfil South Africa’s interests.

Mr Obed Bapela, thank you very much for talking to us.

Thank you very much.

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