Joe Biden is reportedly considering the former Republican senator Jeff Flake for the post of US ambassador to South Africa. If this happens, it could be an insulting gesture to thousands of South Africans who lived under apartheid. Apartheid—the racial restriction policies of the South African government that lasted from 1948 to 1990—was defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as an inhumane act of a character similar to other crimes against humanity.
Why is this problematic?
Jeff Flake is reportedly a former lobbyist for the apartheid regime. The Republican party´s so-called civility hero, Flake (who opportunistically dumped Trump in his last days) started his political career as a pro-apartheid activist; lobbying for apartheid South Africa’s mining interests in the ’80s and ’90s; and testifying against an anti-apartheid resolution in Utah Senate while a student at Brigham Young University.
In a startling remark, while testifying in support of a pro-apartheid resolution in the Utah Senate in 1987, Flake was heard saying: “South Africa is a major source to the free world of vital minerals, such as manganese, gold, platinum, gold, etcetera. South Africa has over 70 percent of some of these minerals. If the [apartheid] government of South Africa falls . . . to radical elements from the left . . . we would be deprived an economic source of these vital minerals.”
No doubt Flake looks like a man who was willing to take money from apartheid lobbies, and speak wonderfully in support of the racist South Africa government then. He cannot hide his past.
If Biden appoints Flake in South Africa this could be viewed slap in the face by thousands of traumatized families of apartheid crimes in South Africa. Apartheid took a deadly toll on the country. At its grimmest hours in 1990, the apartheid regime caused 3,038 deaths in South Africa, mainly black Africans, according to records kept by the South Africa Institute of Race Relations.
Today the families of apartheid’s direct victims are laboring with the trauma of loved ones who were forcibly disappeared, tortured, or whose remains were never located. Families left behind are waiting in courts, seeking financial restitution and a basic apology from the perpetrators of apartheid atrocities. In some cases, white secret police perpetrators of apartheid violence live long, sheltered lives and die peacefully under the privileges of amnesty.
What is Biden’s motivation?
We hold the view that Joe Biden is desperate to please centrists and hold the far-left flank of the Democratic Party at bay. His potential drafting of moderate Republicans such as Flake and Cindy McCain into his administration should be viewed through the prism of his call for “unity.”
“While it is true that Flake, a Republican, sided with Biden against Trump, this particular post is not a suitable reward. Biden would not post an apologist for the Belarus regime in Belarus. The people still protesting in the streets would be appalled,” cautions South Africa expert and former diplomat Stephen Chan, professor of international politics at The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Chan tells Today´s American Catholic: “The posting of Flake as US Ambassador to South Africa would be regarded indeed as an insulting gesture. Although South Africa has gone to great lengths to move on from the apartheid era, it is not as if the apartheid era has died away. It is within living memory.”
Biden can still reconsider—and why Catholics should be concerned
Jeff Flake is still under consideration as ambassador to South Africa, meaning Biden still has time to amend his decision. “The USA has sent excellent ambassadors to many of the neighboring countries and should send a top-flight person to South Africa, indisputably with Nigeria one of the two most important countries in sub-Saharan Africa,” advises Chan.
The crime of apartheid and global opposition to it united people of all creeds, including Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists, when the Boycott and Disinvest campaign became widely known from the ’60s right up to the ’90s. Apartheid was and remains viewed as a moral crime that offends the notion of human dignity as prized by all faiths.
To be fair, Flake was a small pro-apartheid lobbyist in the greater scheme of things, but his enthusiastic defense of it must still rule him out as a suitable ambassador to South Africa. Biden still has time to revise this potentially ill-considered judgment.
Ray Mwareya is a thinker and past winner of The UN Correspondents Association Media Prize. Nyasha Bhobo is a reporter and rights advocate. Their work has been published in Newsweek, the Guardian, and The Africa Report.