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South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool on Obama, Miners and Confronting Islamophobia in the U.S.

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As President Obama seeks four more years in the White House, we turn to a voice from Africa: South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool, who was once imprisoned with Nelson Mandela. Rasool discusses the Obama presidency, the militarization of Africa, Islamophobia, the recent police killing of 34 striking South African miners and his 2006 meeting with then-Senator Obama in South Africa. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, “Breaking With Convention.” The American Muslim Democratic Caucus met here in Charlotte just a few hours before President Obama’s address, one day after of the controversial vote over language in the Democratic platform over Jerusalem. Party leaders forced through a platform change on Wednesday to reinstate references to God and to the view that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The language in question was included in 2008 but was not included when delegates approved the 2012 platform earlier this week. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital stands in contrast to longstanding U.S. government policy, which calls for the city’s status to be resolved through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Well, speakers at the American Muslim Democratic Caucus event included Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Rasool is a South African Muslim who was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, a member of the African National Congress. I began by asking him why he was in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think that all embassies are represented both in Tampa and in Charlotte, so I don’t—I don’t come here because of a political preference. I think we do come because we have a long history as a political community in South Africa. We’ve been under oppression. We’ve shared many of the suffering and the joys of the civil rights era. We’ve learned many of the lessons. We sing “We Shall Overcome” in South Africa, in our darkest days. We’ve drawn on the speeches of both people like Martin Luther King as well as Robert F. Kennedy, when he came to Cape Town. And so, I think that there’s a heartbeat, but there’s also political evenness that we exercise. And I think that, certainly, observing what is happening here is a very important part of our—our work.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk a little about your background in South Africa?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I’m a member of the African National Congress. I’ve spent some of my time in prison, where I met Nelson Mandela for the first time.

AMY GOODMAN: On Robben Island?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: When he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. That’s where I met him. I have served in the government of the Western Cape, whether as minister of health right up to the governor of the Western Cape province. And I’m now ambassador in Washington.

I am recognized as a fairly active Muslim, and I am also very active globally, as Muslims, to try and reposition Muslims away from a path that is caught up in the inertia of orthodoxy, on the one hand, and the nihilism of extremism, on the other hand. We’re trying to find that middle path. And so, my presence at the American Muslim Democratic Caucus lunch is really to try and understand where does this middle ground exist within the American Muslim community. Are there alternatives to the siren songs from the extremists, and are there alternatives to the inertia of the—of an orthodoxy that can’t respond to the new challenges that Muslims are facing in a globalizing world?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a comment on what happened yesterday on the floor of the convention around the amendment that reinserted Jerusalem as the proper capital of Israel in the Democratic national platform?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: Before I came to this luncheon, I attended the—a forum by the American Jewish Committee, in which quite a few senators and congresspeople spoke, leaders of the Democratic Party, trying to explain away to the Jewish community the issues around the Jerusalem platform. I thought I needed to say something in that forum, and I said I thought it was a strategic masterstroke to leave it out of the platform that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel, that I think that it may be placating now to put it back in. But in the long-term interest of a two-state solution and of Israel in the Middle East, the mediator between the Palestinians and the Israelis should not prejudge the final outcome of the negotiations. And I thought that it was, at first, a technical masterstroke to remove it from the platform, so that the U.S. can go in there as a careful, even-handed mediator and get the process starting again. But the moment the governing party and the government of the United States is forced to say that it supports Jerusalem as the capital, you then raise the possibility that—can this be the most effective and the most even-handed and the most impartial mediator, when they themselves have prejudged the outcome of the negotiations?

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the response at this gathering of the American Jewish Committee?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I don’t think that there was too much of a tolerant atmosphere. I had just seen someone before me being asked to—to quiet them down, and another person left because they couldn’t raise the issue of Gaza, and all of those kind of things. I was treated a lot more respectfully, because of being ambassador and because of the South African example. But I think there was an attempt to make me believe that there’s no contradiction between the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and the status of Jerusalem still being up for negotiation in the final status talk. I didn’t buy that. But I thought it was sufficient that I made my point.

AMY GOODMAN: When you got up on the stage here, you said this made you think about Nelson Mandela. Explain why.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think it was the fact that, despite being a 3 percent Muslim minority in South Africa, Nelson Mandela had seen the worth of people before he saw the way they prayed, the way they dressed and what they ate, that he had appointed key people to key cabinet positions. I found myself as the minister of health and soon to be the leader of the ANC in the Western Cape and later its governor. And Nelson Mandela, his humanity preceded whatever other identity he had. And this gathering reminded me of Muslims growing in number within a party, growing in power within a party, and therefore my prayer was that whatever they come into this kind of power with, they should be humbled with pure intentions, with a clear set of values, but most importantly, not be corrupted by power that is gathered in the course of a political struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the 34 mineworkers that were killed in South Africa, can you talk about what happened and what should happen?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think, at the end of the day, we are looking to the police investigations, the judicial commission of inquiry and the cabinet committee that have been asked to look into it to tell us exactly what has happened. But whatever the technicalities, whoever shot first, why people were armed, why the police did what they want to, did they do things properly—whatever the outcome of that, there is an undeniable tragedy that I think must be acknowledged, that 44 people can’t die in a course of a strike, without South Africa pausing to reflect what this means.

I believe, at the end of the day, the kind of compromises we made in 1994 are coming back to haunt us. In 1994, we took the political kingdom. We delayed the economic kingdom. I believe that the patience of blacks have not been rewarded with a requisite generosity from whites and from the owners of our economy, that if workers don’t even have basic amenities, then who can argue with their right to be angry? And I think it is the most important wake-up call that South Africa can have, tragic as it is, to address the need for the second transition in South Africa, so that we can begin to share out that economy, make people’s lives better, and ensure that we don’t have an equilibrium in society, but certainly that we move now to a greater harmony in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a point of clarification: when you said it’s not clear who shot first, there was no contention that the miners had guns, was there?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: No, I—what I’m saying is that those are issues that, in the course, will be worked out. I don’t—I think that the bigger debate will be whether we are building a foundation of justice and a foundation of equality and a foundation of sharing the wealth of our country more equitably.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would that look like?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think that we have been diverted from the principle of a shared prosperity to the mechanisms. Should it be nationalization? Should it be business as usual? Should it be more black economic empowerment? I believe that being distracted by all of those mechanisms have actually taken our eye off the very powder keg that I think South African society is sitting on.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you talking about land reform?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think that the second transition has to be about land reform. It has to be about reforming the ownership structures of our mines. It has to be about greater income equality in our country. It has to be about all the things—the service delivery backlogs, the housing backlogs—that still persist. It basically says, let us manage the second transition before we don’t have patience left from those that are making enormous sacrifices.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the killing of the miners at the Marikana platinum mine can be compared to what happened in 1960 in apartheid South Africa in Sharpeville when 69 people were killed by the apartheid police?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I don’t think so. I think that the origins are completely different. I think that—that there wasn’t—there isn’t the racial element to it. There isn’t the suppression element of a totalitarian state behind it. And so, I think that people often need metaphors to make sense of events that happen. [inaudible] should be done on its merits, should be judged on its merits. It’s not that it’s less of a tragedy. It’s, in fact, more of a tragedy that it happened in a post-apartheid South Africa. But it is not comparable to a great tragedy under apartheid. The intentions were different by the apartheid police. The mindset was different by the apartheid police. And the means of the apartheid police were different. And so, I don’t think that there is comparisons, but there is certainly comparable tragedy in both events.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ebrahim Rasool, South African ambassador to the United States. Coming up, we continue the conversation. He talks about his meeting with a younger Senator Barack Obama in 2006 in South Africa, as well as the militarization of Africa, drones, and President Obama as a son of Africa, as well coming up in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency,” Democracy Now!'s special coverage from the Democratic National Convention, inside and out. I'm Amy Goodman, as we return to my interview with Ebrahim Rasool, South African ambassador to the United States. I spoke to him Thursday after he addressed the American Muslim Democratic Caucus here in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I asked him if he had ever actually personally met Barack Obama.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: Part of the reason that I have been asked to serve as ambassador here in the United States was that in 2006 an unknown senator from Illinois visited South Africa, and very few politicians opened their door. Two politicians in South Africa opened their door. The one was our minister of finance, Trevor Manuel; the other one was the governor of the Western Cape, myself. I spent two-and-a-half wonderful hours in my office with Senator Obama. And when I was asked by our president in 2010 to come to the U.S.A. and went into the Oval Office to present my credentials, President Obama remembered that moment that he had spent two-and-a-half hours with me. When I met him subsequently in the White House, he sent one of his security people after me to ask what was the description of the gift that I had given him, because he doesn’t think it’s come down to Washington with him. I was able to say to him that the gift I gave him was a lithograph of Nelson Mandela’s first speech after being released from prison in 1990. And that was the gift that I had given President Obama. So I think that it’s a wonderful story that has its personal moments.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you talk about in that two-and-a-half hours with Senator Barack Obama?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: We had—we had spoken about a wide range of issues. We spoke about multiculturalism in the world, because I think that we were dealing with a Bush era of “with us or against us,” of monoculturalism being rampant. We spoke about militarism and unilateralism being the stock trade of U.S. foreign policy and how we should be able to replace that with a greater multilateralism and a chance for dialogue to work. I had spoken to him especially about the South African philosophy of ubuntu, that we are people through other people, we are interdependent, and that we need to speak to each other’s humanity. Those were some of the ideas that we had exchanged at that moment in 2006.

AMY GOODMAN: Was Michelle Obama with him?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: She was not with him.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was 2006. What was your reaction when you saw him rise in the United States and then in fact he was elected in 2008?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I must say that, in my own household, I was governor of the Western Cape who had met Barack Obama. My wife had just been appointed as commissioner for gender equality by President Mbeki. And she argued that it was more important for the White House to have its first woman than to have its first black person. That was a very healthy debate. I conceded to her that maybe it’s more likely that Hillary Clinton will become president, so I was very, very surprised when Barack Obama actually pulled off that election in 2008. And I think there was an air of excitement, and the newspapers in South Africa ran the picture of me handing President Obama, when he visited Cape Town in 2006, the gift of Nelson Mandela’s first speech. And there were lots of quips about my ability to have foretold the future.

AMY GOODMAN: In that speech, what did President Mandela say?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: It was a world in which Nelson Mandela had just come out of prison. He was going to start the negotiations with F.W. de Klerk. He was really carrying forward a vision of South Africa that was largely shaped in the Cold War. He spoke about nationalizing the mines and nationalizing this, but he also spoke about reconciling black and white in South Africa, about how we are going to not destroy whites but embrace them, how we are going to share the country, not take it over, and how we are now going to create a possible peace for the remaining generations. That was one of the most amazing speeches, that reflected, to a large extent, a Cold War past, as well.

And the transformation of Nelson Mandela between then and when he became president was an enormous one—the ability to see that the world has changed, the ability to imbibe all of these new ideas, the ability to understand how you live in a world that is now unipolar, where the United States dominates and capitalism is rampant, and then to begin to put down the underpinnings of embracing capitalism but understanding that it needs human dimensions, that it needs to be underpinned by a humanity that is able to share out the benefits of capitalism and to remove the harshest aspects of it. I think that debate, almost 20 years later, has never been sharper than I’ve heard it in the U.S.A. at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: We were just in Durban, South Africa, for the climate change conference. There is a group of donors to the Democratic Party that are now raising deep concerns that President Obama has not raised the issue of climate change in this convention through the various speakers. What about that? You’ve been observing this election, and you’ve been—you’ve been observing this convention, and you’ve been—of course, South Africa, just as the United States, is deeply affected by climate change.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think that that’s precisely the reason why someone like myself, representing a country like South Africa, can’t give any party a blank check. I think that there are global issues which are being subsumed by certain narrow discussions within the U.S., namely the desire to elect a president, that there is not the requisite leadership to say we need to make sure that the world is a better place, that it is a world that is freer of carbons than before. And what is amazing is that Tampa was threatened by a hurricane, that there are floods, there are fires, there are droughts, there are enorm—heat waves through the United States, and yet the elephant in the room is not being addressed. And that’s the shortcoming of conventions. If this had been an ANC convention in South Africa, it would have been rough. It would have been a rough policy debate. It would have been a rough electoral contest. But we expect that the U.S. is different, but it can be substantially out of step with the world. And so, part of what my job is, while South Africa is the president of COP17, it is to bring greater awareness to the challenges of climate, to the global warming situation, and to be able to assist in ways in which the United States can begin to face up to that debate.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been disappointed in President Obama’s term, his first term in office? We’ll see what happens in November.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I’m not a U.S. citizen, so it’s not for me to be disappointed or elated by the president, but I think that I reflect a part of the world that has emerged from suffering, that is struggling, with 30 percent unemployment rates, not 8.2 percent unemployment rates, with issues—

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty percent and higher in the black community in the United States—


AMY GOODMAN: —especially among young males.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: Yeah. No, I think, absolutely, that is the case. But the fact of the matter is that those are the challenges that we face. And because globalization is not something you can resign from—we are each other’s keepers—that what happens in the U.S. does affect the way in which South Africa manages things. Our banks are of the best banks in the world, but we’ve gone through a similar depression, with a million jobs being lost in South Africa because there was a financial crisis in the United States of America, that we are now being asked to not power up our economy, because there’s excess carbons in other hemispheres of the world. We are each other’s keepers, and therefore diplomacy today has to be the art of speaking the truth gently. And that really is my job in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: As a Muslim diplomat, what are your thoughts about people in this country saying that President Obama is a Muslim, meaning it in a derogatory way?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I had a little bit of a confrontation on one of the intersections on Tryon Street, where—

AMY GOODMAN: Right here in Charlotte.

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: Right here in Charlotte. I walked past, and this pastor or someone was saying, “Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim. You cannot vote for him because he’s a Muslim.” And I said to him, “I’m not an American, but I am a Muslim. I know that President Obama is not a Muslim. But please tell me, why do you hate me so much?” And he said, “No, no, no. It’s not that I hate you.” I said, “No, but if you are calling on people to not vote for someone because you are trying to infer that he’s Muslim, there must be such a deep hatred. Please tell me, what can I do about my condition that will make you embrace you?” And he had no answer. And so, I think that those are really—and I don’t have an anger about it. I’ve come out of the anger of apartheid. I faced worse as a Muslim, as a black, and of a particular ethnic group, as well. So it’s not anger that is—that is my—it’s a genuine pity.

And the fact of the matter is that part of my challenge to Muslim communities in the U.S.A. and all over the world is that we must equally, forcefully denounce Islamophobia and, with the same amount of force, denounce extremism done in the name of Islam, that we are creating a Faustian pact of Islamophobes and Muslim extremists who need each other to survive. The Islamophobes need the extremists in order to drive an anti-Muslim agenda, and the extremists need the Islamophobes in order to keep up an anti-Western rhetoric. It’s a Faustian pact. And somehow, we can’t be propping up one side or the other, but we’ve got to collapse both extremes and recognize them as mirror images. They are both fundamentalists.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is the son of a white woman from Kansas here in the United States and a black father from Kenya. He is, in a sense, a son of Africa. You are, too. What are your thoughts about that?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think that there are sometimes ways in which the political opponents of President Obama label him in particular ways so that he is disabled from responding to the very important issues that confront particular global constituencies, like how he would respond to the Arab awakening and whether he can fulsomely embrace the desire for democracy, for human rights and for freedom in the Middle East and in the Muslim world more generally. And so, he acts with greater hesitancy sometimes than he should, in much the same way, by harping on the fact that he’s an African, they sometimes disable him from reaching out fully to the last continent where disease, poverty, malnutrition and ignorance still reigns, and, at the same time, from embracing that continent, which is also beginning to rise economically and to present certain benefits to the world. And so, I think that if I were to appeal to the African in President Obama, and should he win a second term, I believe that he has an opportunity not to embrace Africa because he has sympathy for it, but because there are possibilities there, to embrace Africa a lot more fulsomely, because if we miss the next decade in Africa’s development, that may be the origin of the next wave of insecurity that will hit the world. When you have 50 percent of the world’s youth being concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, ignorant and unemployed, that’s where the danger for the world will come. So, in a spirit of enlightened self-interest, I believe we should ensure that President Obama, in the second term, freed up from having to run for office again, can embrace the most important causes in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: The militarization of Africa by the United States with AFRICOM?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I don’t—I don’t believe that the African Union is open to AFRICOM being based there. I think that we far better enjoy having PEPFAR as a way to fight HIV and AIDS on the African continent. We far better prefer the African Growth and Opportunities Act that is spurring this burgeoning prosperity that is beginning to come to Africa. I don’t think that we need a lightning rod for extremists of the world to be located in Africa, to add to the poverty, the hunger, the malnutrition and all the other problems that we already face in Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: And the drone strikes? The drone strikes?

AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: I think that, again, those are things that a strong African Union can enter into a good dialogue with the United States. I think that it’s part of the reason that South Africa fought very hard with SADC in order to get—


AMBASSADOR EBRAHIM RASOOL: SADC, the South African—Southern African Development Community, to ensure that our home affairs minister becomes the new chairperson of the African Union, in order for us to have a coherent voice, in order for us to cohesively stand together as a continent and define our own interests and not simply be another battleground. For far too long, we have suffered from being a theater of war and conflict in the Cold War. We now need to be freed of those kind of things, so that Africa can get on with its life.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States. When we come back, more from the floor of the Democratic National Convention. This is Democracy Now!

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