Johannesburg, South Africa.
On Friday evening, October 20, a traveling academic confronted a regular ugly occurrence at JFK airport. He was stopped at immigration by Homeland Security, shuttled off without explanation into a stark waiting room, left there for six hours with no food or water with other similarly trapped travellers (including a little child who cried inconsolably), was asked a few template questions – “have you ever been a member of a terrorist organization?” – and finally was marched away by two armed officers and put on a plane back to South Africa, his 10-year visa summarily revoked. No explanation. By the time he realized what was afoot and called the South African embassy, at about 3 a.m., it was too late for them to do anything. He arrived back in South Africa tired, tousled, and very pissed off.
But, unusually, this visitor was in a position to make a serious stink about it. Within hours, the South African government’s Department of Foreign Affairs was mobilized and the American Embassy was offering embarrassed apologies. Within days, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was also mobilized. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called to ask if they could make his experience a test case.
Denying US visas to visiting academics is, of course, not uncommon these days. All over the United States, in the Homeland Security era, university departments and organizers of scientific and academic conferences have been regularly startled, angered, frustrated and baffled as some new colleague or visiting scholar is denied entry to the country. Some of these unwanted souls have been luminaries, like Dr. Tariq Ramadan, an international scholar of Islam and its interaction with western cultures, who was named by Time one of the 100 most important innovators of the 21st century. Targeted as objectionable by pro-Israeli networks, Dr. Ramadan was abruptly denied a visa just two weeks before he was scheduled to assume a senior appointment at the University of Notre Dame. (Amidst the ensuing hullabaloo, he was promptly snapped up by Oxford). Other rejectees are talented rising scholars, like Dr. Waskar Ari from Bolivia, whose visa was denied just a month before he was to take up his new position at the University of Nebraska. Apparently, all work visas from Bolivia were cancelled some time after the leftist President Morales was elected.
But Dr. Adam Habib is not some mild-mannered professor-type, to whom Homeland Security (with its routine disdain for intellectuals and their lily-livered liberal universities) might casually flip the bird. Nor is he simply well-known –although he is one of the best-known political scientists and public intellectuals in South Africa, whose expulsion from the US has sent shock waves through South Africa and triggered a blitz of international media coverage. Nor is he a Muslim cleric, Pakistani student, Venezuelan researcher, Palestinian brother-in-law, or other traveller who might fear for the welfare of some vulnerable family member or lack access to government contacts, and therefore be sufficiently intimidated by Big Brother to confine his frustrations to sympathetic friends in his living room.
Rather, Dr. Habib is Executive Director of the Democracy and Governance Programme at the para-statal Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the largest research institution in South Africa. (Disclosure: I work in that programme.) He was going to the US as part of an official delegation from the HSRC, led by its CEO Olive Shisana, to consult with the World Bank and other terrorist sympathizers. His chums are ministers and director generals of various government agencies and their international equivalents.
In other words, he’s a leading international figure in the study and promotion of democracy in South Africa, in the African continent, and globally. Very shady stuff, apparently, to Homeland Security.
Why was Dr. Habib caught in Homeland Security’s net? (They even let his wife in.) Officials gave no explanation and they aren’t required to give one. Even the airport officers, who dealt apologetically with Dr. Habib as they threw him out of the country, may not have known what it was. Having visiting the US numerous times over the past decade on his ten-year visa, Dr. Habib himself was entirely baffled. Back home, speculations ran the gamut. His visit to Iran in 2004? But that was part of an official HSRC exchange programme. A ban on Muslim clerics? Dr. Habib is a practicing Muslim but not a cleric. Racial profiling? Dr. Habib is not Arab, or Pak, or Persian, or Afghan, or any other of Homeland Security’s racial targets: he’s of Indian descent, as is some 2.5% of South Africa’s population. His name? Even the doughty Homeland Security can’t automatically shut out every traveler with last names like “Habib”. All of these reasons at once, perhaps?
Capping the opacity, after weeks of inquiry the US government finally issued its own written explanation: we have no record of Dr. Habib’s expulsion. The aura of 1984 congeals with a thump.
One speculation is that Homeland Security, being so skilled at its job, has simply merged into its own database the old apartheid-era South Africa database of security threats, which includes notorious Islamo-fascists like Nelson Mandela. This might explain a recent fiasco: when the elderly Mr. Mandela last visited the US, in 2003, the US security apparatus at first refused to let him in. “Once a terrorist always a terrorist”, came Homeland Security’s sniffy pronouncement about one of the world’s political saints. (Upon hammering by the South African government, the ban finally reached the desk of Colin Powell, who overturned it in a flash.) Since Dr. Habib was briefly detained by the South African apartheid government back in the 1980s rather a mark of distinction these days – his name may have popped up on the same list.
Whatever the reason, Mr. Mandela and Dr. Habib are not alone. A number of South African travellers have been turned back more recently, for reasons unexplained. The Department of Foreign Affairs is vague about who and why: the South African government had, mysteriously, not acted on what is clearly a pattern regarding South African citizens. No official complaints had been filed until Dr. Habib got home and promptly called his startled government friends and colleagues, the ministers of this and that, to ask what the hell.
Still, what is behind this bizarre targeting of South Africans? What is the rationale? Merging a list of “security risks” composed by South Africa’s apartheid government is hard to attribute to mere ignorance (for which Americans are, of course, infamous). It is not even easily blamed on the galloping incompetence that Homeland Security increasingly displays. For apartheid South Africa was not just a repressive regime universally detested and denounced for killing or torturing those “security risks” struggling for democracy. It evaporated entirely in 1994 and many of those former “security risks” have entered South Africa’s government leadership. Even the US now extends them all diplomatic courtesies. So after the embarrassing Mandela incident, why didn’t Homeland Security strike its forehead in self-recrimination and delete those entries?
It’s a stretch, but not much of one, to speculate that South Africa’s freedom fighters still manifest generically to the Bush administration today as a “risk”, lip service notwithstanding. For, as we know, the US has historically been very suspicious of democracy. The entire US military mission in the Middle East is, of course, framed by insipid “democratization” rhetoric, but its regime-change projects are, at best, designed to create weak governments that will trot nicely on the US leash, absorbing local democratic pressures into ineffectual legislatures and periodic electoral ceremonies that install compliant client leaderships. We have ample evidence from US behaviour over the past century or so notably in Central America in the 1980s and most recently in Palestine and elsewhere that the last thing the US government wants to see in its far-flung dominions are grassroots democracy movements which succeed in producing vigorous, progressive governments that can meaningfully take the reins of security, trade and development policy.
So maybe South Africans like Dr. Habib are indeed a “security risk” for the Bush administration and its schreibtischtater. It’s not just that he’s an intellectual of formidable standing who happens to be Muslim. What indeed might devolve, if South Africa’s example of democracy spreads? What if other beleaguered peoples around the world start talking to these veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle and inviting them to come visit?
Especially, what would happen the horror if South African democracy theorists with serious activist track records and names like “Habib” started showing up in Israel-Palestine? Can’t have people thinking too much about the new South Africa in a place like that.
VIRGINIA TILLEY is Chief Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, South Africa and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock (University of Michigan Press and Manchester University Press, 2005). She can be reached at email@example.com.