Symbolism will hang heavy this weekend when Barack Obama visits Soweto, the cradle of South Africa’s black liberation struggle, and Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela, who remained in critical condition in hospital last night, languished for years, plotting his nation’s rebirth.
Obama should not expect red-carpet treatment from all South Africans, despite the historic affinity between the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Workers, students and Muslim groups are among those determined to give Obama a bumpy landing when he arrives at the home of Africa’s biggest economy.
“NObama” is the cry from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist party, which have called for “all workers” to join mass protests including a march on the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria on Friday.
Academics and students have vowed to boycott the University of Johannesburg’s award of an honorary law doctorate to Obama. The Muslim Lawyers’ Association has called for the president to be arrested as a war criminal.
While these may appear fringe group stunts that U.S. presidents face all over the world, South Africa is an unusual case.
Cosatu and the Communist party form a “tripartite alliance” with the governing African National Congress (ANC) and they expect to be heard. Cosatu in particular, with 2.2 million members, is central to the ANC’s election machinery and well rehearsed in mobilizing demonstrations that have been known to turn violent.
The secretary general of the Communist party, Blade Nzimande, doubles as the country’s higher education minister and the ANC has plenty of self-professed communists and Marxists with a flair for anti-Western rhetoric…
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