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The Death of Qaddafi: Cause for Celebration or Mourning?

October 31, 2011

Based on reading the major media sources, it seems that Qaddafi’s passing has largely been a cause for celebration across the globe. The details of the method of his death and subsequent viewing aside (which do inspire issues on a human rights level) Western leaders and individual citizens alike seem to largely support the nascent new Libyan government and what the Arab Spring movement in Libya seems to represent.

President Obama even said on NBC’s Tonight Show that Qaddafi’s death sends a message to dictators everywhere “that people long to be free.” Obama said that Qaddafi “terrorized his country and supported terrorism” and had been given the opportunity to leave power. When he continued to refuse to do so, Obama noted that he thought “it obviously sends a strong message around the world to dictators that people long to be free, and they need to respect the human rights and the universal aspirations of people.”

However, not everyone celebrated Qaddifi’s death. A South African friend of mine, Kunale, posted the following on his facebook wall on the day Qaddafi was killed:

Qaddafi's living on in Social Media.

As you can see, he even made his profile picture Qaddafi’s image.

Talk about two sides to every story.

For those of you unfamiliar with South African history or politics, let me give ,you a quick background. The ANC stands for the African National Congress, and it is the majority party of South Africa, and has been since post-apartheid elections began in 1994. It is historically the party of Nelson Mandela and other like-minded freedom fighters who peacefully transitioned South Africa to a post-apartheid nation. The ANC still gets some political legitimacy from having this illustrious past.

Apparently, when Kunale referred to Qaddafi “supporting” the ANC, he was highlighting his personal and political relationship with Mandela. Not only did Qaddafi siphon off Libyan oil money to help fund the ANC during its struggle in apartheid years, he and Mandela publicly supported one another in the face of Western disapproval. For instance, Mandela was the first recipient of the Al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in 1989, an award that Qaddafi founded and later gave to more dubiously benign world leaders such as Fidel Castro and Roger Garaudy. Nelson Mandela in return bestowed one of South Africa’s highest honors, the Order of Good Hope, on Qaddafi in 1997. He also stood by Qaddafi and some of his questionable human rights practices in speeches, indicating that as Qaddafi had helped him before Mandela and the ANC even gained power, when no Western power acknowledged their struggle, he would continue to support Qaddafi.

This did help to explain why Kunale mourned Qaddafi’s death, but it still seemed strange to me due to Qaddafi’s deliberate political distancing of Libya from the rest of Africa. Qaddafi’s appeal to sub-Saharan ‘black’ Africans was hard for my to grasp because of Qaddafi’s continuous emphasis on pan-Arabism, and seeming favoritism in his own nation towards lighter skinned, Middle Eastern ethnicities over darker, African ones. If Qaddafi was going to be portrayed as any type of hero, it would have to be as a Middle Eastern, not an African one. And yet there was Qaddafi’s face, where my friend’s face usually was….

Despite Kunale’s sentiments, his view is in no way indicative of how all South Africans think. Another of my South African acquaintances, a worldly 30-something who also spends significant amounts of time in the States, wrote the following when told about Kunale’s Facebook post:

This is not surprising to me and I understand (but don’t share) the sentiment. It’s the same sentiment that leads many Black South Africans to remain sympathetic to Mugabe. In fact it is the same sentiment that made America remain supportive of the Shah of Iran, Hosni Mubarack and Ferdinand Marcos, even after they had proven to be autocratic despots. In fact, Michelle Bachman just recently lamented the fact that Jimmy Carter did not do enough to shore up the Shah’s regime and keep him in power and that’s why Iran is now a problem.

People often base their views of issues and people on fairly myopic concerns that are usually related to their own self-interest or their own limited view historical experience and evidence. This is what makes democracy great and it is also what makes democracy problematic.

For an excellent blog post that explores the relationship between South Africa and Qaddafi further, please click here.

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