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“Violence Is the Product of the Polarized Nature of Our Society”–South African Scholar Adam Habib on Killing of White Supremacist Leader

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South African President Jacob Zuma is calling for calm following the murder of a white supremacist leader named Eugène Terre’Blanche. Terre’Blanche was a longtime supporter of the apartheid government and an advocate for the creation of an all-white republic within South Africa. We speak with South African scholar Adam Habib, who was barred from entering the United States for over three years by the Bush administration. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with South Africa, where racial tensions are threatening to erupt following the murder of white supremacist leader Eugène Terre’Blanche. South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma called for calm and national unity on Sunday.

    PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: It is important that all leaders lead this country, from different political formations, and non-governmental organizations should unite in the call for calm in this country. I condemn this act, cowardly act, and the matter of Mr. Terre’Blanche, it’s not acceptable in our society, in our democracy. We all should unite against violent crime. And certainly, in due course, we’ll know as to what is it that led to this terrible action.

AMY GOODMAN: The killing is believed to have followed a reported pay dispute with black workers, but members of Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB, says he was hacked to death with machetes in a politically motivated attack.

The incident comes at a time of heightened racial tensions in South Africa, exacerbated by a controversy over the head of the ruling ANC party’s Youth League singing an anti-apartheid song with lyrics that translate into “shoot the boer.” “Boer” is Afrikaans for farmer.

Well, for more, I’m joined here in New York by a leading South African scholar who was barred from entering the United States for over three years. Adam Habib is a political science professor, the deputy vice chancellor for research at the University of Johannesburg. In October 2006, the Department of Homeland Security refused him entry into the United States and revoked his visa without explanation. The following year, the ACLU, along with the American Sociological Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, filed a lawsuit arguing that Habib was being denied entry on ideological grounds. Well, earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton withdrew the ban on a visa for Habib.

Adam Habib, welcome to Democracy Now!

ADAM HABIB: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Before I ask you about South Africa, how was it coming into the country after these years that you were excluded?

ADAM HABIB: Well, it’s useful, and it’s interesting. I came into Washington, and there was an INS official who had my name on a placard and said, “Habib, please follow me.” And I wasn’t sure what to expect. And then they took me to the special booth. They cleared out my visa regulations in my passport. They cleared that of my delegation. They put us —- they facilitated us access through customs. They even offered us a vehicle to deliver us to the hotel. So I felt like a rock star. I, you know, was treated wonderfully, completely an extreme difference from what I received in 2006. So -—

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you excluded?

ADAM HABIB: We’re not sure. I mean, there’s a couple of speculations. The first and the most obvious is that it could be racial profiling. That’s what I initially thought. But when the issue received the kind of prominence that it did and they still continued to do so, there was some belief, people in the presidency in South Africa suggested, that it had to do with my opposition to the war in Iraq. I had led protests. I had spoken at rallies in Durban in South Africa around the Iraq — around the Iraq war in the antiwar demonstrations. But, you know, others have been able to get into the United States even though they participated in this, so that one didn’t make sense.

My own view is, frankly, that, you know, the United States bureaucracy, like all bureaucracies, works on a formula — Muslim background, you get two points; critical of American foreign policy, you get three points; travels a lot, two points. And I think I went over some kind of magical number that they figured out. So a lot of coincidence, I think, in part, a part of it ideological, in that clearly they felt that I was critical of the US government, which I was.

I think that, frankly, the Bush administration brought the world to a very dangerous place. I think the Iraq war was a complete disaster. I think we are paying the consequences for that both in the United States, in the polarized atmosphere that I see now, but also in the world more broadly, places like South Africa, places like the Middle East. I think the world is a much more dangerous place than ten years ago, and I think that the Bush administration had a lot to do with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now what’s happening in South Africa, this killing of the white supremacist leader Eugène Terre’Blanche? He was killed by two of his workers. They said that he wasn’t paying them. And they waited — I think they called the authorities to say to pick them up. They waited to be picked up. They weren’t just sought out. They didn’t go into hiding. Others are saying it has to do with this increased racial polarization in South Africa. What do you think?

ADAM HABIB: Look, I think Eugène Terre’Blanche is somebody who’s got a track record of treating people badly. I mean, not only was he a white supremacist leader that was — received notoriety in the dawn of the South African transition, but about five or six years later he was actually imprisoned for having treated a worker fairly badly, of actually beating a worker. And that’s what he spent four or five years in prison. He was then released, I think a couple of years ago. So I’m not entirely surprised that there was a wage dispute. He has a track record of treating workers badly.

Having said that, you cannot resolve a wage dispute through murder. I mean, that’s just unacceptable in any society. And it does have to say, why is South Africans so prone to violent crime? What is it about our society that drives that? And it seems to me that there is no question about it, that we are a very violent society.

In part, that violent society has got to do with the polarized character of our society. Economic inequalities in our society increased in the last fifteen years. It’s one of the few societies in the world that, in the midst of a democratic transition, increased its economic inequalities. So that’s something that has to — we have to worry about. It’s not simply poverty. There are many places in the African continent that are far more poorer than South Africa, yet have far less violent crime. And in a lot of ways this violence is a product of the polarized nature of our society.

In a lot of ways, South Africa reminds me on a micro-scale of the US in this regard. Its problems are more acute. It has a more acute problem base, but the problems I see in the United States are very similar. From healthcare to the polarized conversation in the political mainstream, to all of these kinds of things, I see the same things in South Africa, except it’s much more acute in the South African context, and it’s probably much more micro. It’s located at a particular state level, the size of Iowa, for instance, is what South Africa is.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Habib, explain the significance of this song that was sung. On your campus?

ADAM HABIB: It was. It was sung on the campus of the University of Johannesburg. Julius Malema, who’s the president of the ANC Youth League, was invited to this campus by the SLC to give a lecture. In the lecture, he sang the words “kill the boer, kill the farmer.”

Now, this is a song that had emerged at the height of the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa in the mobilizations that happened in the late ‘80s, early 1990s, by young radicals, if you like. And in that heated environment, this song had become quite popular, “kill the boer, kill the farmer,” meaning figuratively, symbolically speaking, symbolically, that you need to struggle against the apartheid state and fight the apartheid state, and the symbol of the farmer being the old traditional Afrikaner, if you like, and the apartheid state was meant to have represented the interests of the Afrikaner. In ’95, ’96, the song resurfaced, if you like, in that period, particularly by the ANC Youth League, and then died a quiet death after a long period. So it hasn’t been in the public discourse for about six, seven years.

And Julius Malema, who’s been known to make some fairly controversial statements over the last year or two, has been an avid supporter of Jacob Zuma, for instance, raised suddenly at this rally, sang this song again. And it was deliberately done to provoke national headlines. And it did. It received national headlines. The university authorities very quickly moved to condemn it. And we did condemn it.

But clearly, I wasn’t surprised when I heard Eugène Terre’Blanche — about his murder. I immediately thought that there would be some link that is made. I don’t think there’s a direct correlation. But I do think it’s not surprising that there would be that kind of link. It’s a silly statement to make, it’s a silly song to sing, in the kind of heated atmosphere.

AMY GOODMAN: Now they’re talking about outlawing the song.

ADAM HABIB: There is a talk about it. There was a court action that suggested that this song should be outlawed. There was a decision made in this regard, and the ANC was going to challenge it. In this kind of heated atmosphere, I can’t imagine the ANC doing that. I think they might pull back a little. But it was a silly song, and it was meant to rile people. And that’s what it actually did. But, of course, it had — it can have all kinds of consequences in the kind of heated environment of South Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, but then we’re going to come back. Adam Habib, South African political scientist at the University of Johannesburg, barred from entering the United States for over three years, until the Obama administration withdrew the ban earlier this year. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Adam Habib, South African political scientist at the University of Johannesburg. What’s special is that we’re interviewing him not in Johannesburg, but here in the United States. He has just come into the United States after years of being barred by the Bush administration. He’s come here with a delegation. In fact, Adam Habib, you went to school here, didn’t you?

ADAM HABIB: Yes, I went. I went to school at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. It’s now on Fifth Avenue, but I remember when I was here it was still on 42nd Street opposite Bryant Park.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn that the visa — the ban on your visa had been lifted?

ADAM HABIB: Well, we knew that there were debates — there were conversations happening between the lawyer on the State Department side and the ACLU for a couple of months now. The last court decision, which was about June, July, had said it gave both sides about six months to provide deputations, on the one hand, from the State Department side to declare why they had excluded me, and from the ACLU side, why they thought video conferencing wasn’t good enough. And that was supposed due in September. And the ACLU had been asked for a couple of months’ — a couple of weeks’ extension, and that drew on for another couple of weeks and a couple of weeks, and that took us to about December, January. And the ACLU had some inclination that they were trying to figure out something in the State Department to find a resolution to this.

And then in January, I was informed by the ACLU, Melissa Goodman, in particular, who said to me, “Look, Secretary Clinton has just signed an agreement, a waiver effectively, that says that the rationale that previously excluded me can no longer be applied by the United States government.” And they hadn’t indicated what the rationale was. So, officially, I still don’t know why I was excluded. But clearly they said that it can no longer be applied. And they asked me to go ahead to the local embassy and apply. I went to the local embassy with my family, my children, who had also been — had their visas revoked. And all four of us were given ten-year visas in March, middle of March.

AMY GOODMAN: So what have you been speaking about while you’ve been here?

ADAM HABIB: Well, firstly, I’ve been here as part of a university delegation to meet universities to explore partnerships between my university and American institutions. We have already existing partnerships with a number of universities, and this trip was meant to consolidate that and to build new partnerships and extend those. So that’s what I’m here for.

But in the process, I have spoken at various points. I’ve spoken at Harvard University at the law school on an ACLU platform on the issue of ideological exclusions, speaking to my issues and what I think are important about these issues and what are the big challenges. Tomorrow I’ll speak at the graduate school on South Africa and what’s going on in South Africa. So I have had those kinds of things. I’ve done interviews like this and others.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Winnie Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s comments in the Evening Standard with the well-known journalist Nadira Naipaul, who is also the wife of V.S. Naipaul. In this interview, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela criticized the terms of the agreement that ended apartheid in South Africa, saying it had preserved the economic subjugation of the country’s black majority. And speaking of her husband, her former husband, Nelson Mandela, she said, “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside.” What do you think of this?

ADAM HABIB: Well, look, firstly, it’s worthwhile bearing in mind that she denied saying any of this.


ADAM HABIB: So that’s something that’s worth bearing in mind.

But having — let’s take the statements at their face value. On the one hand, I don’t think South Africa had much opportunity. I mean, I think that the deal that was signed has certain positive features and has certain negatives. The positive is that, actually, the big alternative was a racial war. The ANC was in no position to defeat the apartheid regime. The military was intact. There was no capacity to move beyond a negotiated deal. So the negotiated deal was the only game in town, if you like. And any negotiated deal was going to come with conditions. So I think Mandela bought us an opportunity. He gave us a space, the political space to move to a democratic transition.

Did that come without any costs? No. I think that the political conditions, the structure, the power configurations in South Africa in the mid-1990s led to a very conservative macroeconomic agenda being implemented by the Mbeki regime — by Nelson Mandela, but also by Thabo Mbeki subsequently. In a lot of ways, we implemented a kind of economic policy agenda that was implemented in the United States, in Britain, in other parts of the world, except that they didn’t have the social divisions that we had in 1994. And so, in the first five years, we doubled unemployment in our society. Economic inequalities in the last fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years has actually increased.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re not saying poverty has increased, but inequality has increased?

ADAM HABIB: Inequality has increased. There are cases in the first five years where I think poverty itself increased. But with the growth in the economy from 2003, I think that has been contained. Since 2001, we’ve had massive social support grants. Some 13 million people receive social support grants. And I think that’s brought things down a little. But economic inequalities, income inequalities in particular, have increased dramatically in our society. So we went from the second most unequal society after Brazil to currently the most unequal society in the world. And I think that that’s something that we should be ashamed of.

AMY GOODMAN: The largest sporting event in the world is going to be taking place in South Africa in a matter of weeks, in June, the World Cup. Now campaigners are saying that conditions in — is it pronounced “Blikkiesdorp”? — Tin Can Town —-


ADAM HABIB: —- are worse than in the townships created during apartheid. And in Durban and Cape Town, thousands of the city’s poor who live in sprawling informal settlements say they’re being evicted by the ANC’s slum clearance policies. What about this?

ADAM HABIB: Look, there’s no question that they are [inaudible]. Whether you can make the comparison with the apartheid period is difficult to say, in part because the problems have ballooned post-the apartheid period. If you were in a rural area in the apartheid period, you were not allowed to come into the urban areas. After democracy, you were allowed to come in. And what people have done is they’ve basically grown around the urban cities, and you have got this mushrooming of shantytowns around the urban cities. Conditions are horrendous there. They probably —- you know, you probably, if you think about the favelas in Brazil, these are the kind of the equivalent, shantytowns in South Africa. Conditions are absolutely atrocious. Is there a problem around service delivery? Absolutely. We have not delivered.

As I said to you, economic inequalities have increased. The rich in South Africa live very well. People like myself, middle— and upper-middle-class people, can live very, very well. We can live lifestyles that are comparable with parts of the United States, with, let’s say, the citizens’ lifestyles of Spain or Western Europe. On the other hand, the poor and marginalized in South African society live the lifestyles of citizens of Benin. And that’s the real tragedy of the South African context.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think would have been an alternative form of development?

ADAM HABIB: Well, I think that we could have done more. For instance, I think, in part, we were constrained by power configurations in both the global and the national order in 1994.

But what could we have done? We could have had a more social democratic agenda. We could have had the kinds of economic policies that were pursued in the United States in the ‘60s and the ‘70s or the kinds of economic policies that were pursued in Western Europe in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and even elements of it today, because what that allowed is it allowed for a more inclusive transition, it integrated the society, it created a social security net for the most marginalized.

We didn’t do those kinds of things. We went for growth. We went for — in part inspired by models in the United States and elsewhere. And one of the consequences of that is we increased economic inequalities, and we increased the polarized character of our society. And in that polarized character of our society, you have all of the kinds of problems that we have — violent crime, child and woman abuse, extreme inequalities, polarized conversations — all of the kinds of things.

As I say, if you want to understand the problems of South Africa, look to the United States and multiply it by twenty times. That’s the nature of what South Africa is in a lot of ways. It reminds me of a mini United States with much more acute problems.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Adam Habib, professor of political science, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, barred from the US for over three years, now for the first time returning. The ban on his visa was withdrawn by the Obama administration. Welcome again to the United States. We’ll link to the details of your CUNY talk, the City University of New York Grad Center talk, on our website,

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