What happened to Tokyo Sexwale is an embarrassment to the ANC, to the SA government and perhaps, most of all, to the US, says the writer. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng

What happened to Tokyo Sexwale is an embarrassment to the ANC, to the SA government and, perhaps most of all, to the US, says Peter Fabricius.

Durban - Like someone treading on a forgotten anti-personnel landmine buried long ago during the now-ended liberation struggle, every so often some senior ANC personality detonates a diplomatic explosion by accidentally activating the old list of “terrorists” denied entry to the US.

Last week it was former housing minister Tokyo Sexwale who was stopped on arrival at JF Kennedy International Airport in New York. According to an ANC statement this week, he was “arrested” or “detained” as his name still appeared on a list of people barred entry – the US government had declared the ANC a terrorist organisation back in about 1987.

The US government says Sexwale was neither arrested nor detained but merely stopped “for further screening” and verification of his visa information.

Sexwale then continued his business trip in the US.

Sexwale himself does not seem to have spoken, so there are several gaps in the story. One is that if Sexwale’s name was still on the banned list, why was that not picked up when he applied for his visa?

A possible explanation is that it was an old visa issued when he was still a cabinet minister and as such enjoyed an exemption from the banned list. This exemption subsequently fell away when he became a private citizen again. Strictly speaking, however, whether he was a present or former cabinet minister shouldn’t have mattered.

There is also a significant difference between being arrested or detained, and merely being taken aside to be asked a few extra questions about the purpose of one’s visit.

But whatever happened, it was quite clearly an embarrassment – to Sexwale, to the ANC, to the South African government and perhaps, most of all, to the US.

And it was unnecessary as it evidently occurred because of a bureaucratic error.

A five-year-old law should have prevented this embarrassment.

In June 2008, after some such previous embarrassing episodes, and because even the likes of Nelson Mandela had had to get special waivers to visit the US, the US Congress adopted Public Law 110-257.

It basically determined that “for purposes of alien inadmissibility based upon terrorist-related grounds” the ANC should no longer be considered as a terrorist organisation.

The law said that individuals who had undertaken activities in opposition to apartheid rule in South Africa should be removed from the list of those denied entry to the US because of terrorist activities.

It specifically directed US authorities to update government databases to remove the names of current or former officials of the South African government.

However, it is now apparent that the officials did not carry out their instructions, or not very thoroughly.

Part of the problem may be that, since 9/11 especially, the list of people barred from the US for being terrorists has become vast and unwieldy.

Nevertheless, the US government bears the chief responsibility for ensuring that all ANC officials are expunged from the list.

However, it’s not entirely alone. Official sources say that Washington did ask the South African government back in 2008 to advise ANC members who thought they might be on the list to submit written requests to be removed.

But it seems few, if any, did so, either out of inertia or because they didn’t know about it. Or because they were damned if they were going to ask the US to undo something which they felt it should have undone automatically – or should never have done in the first place.

Though such incidents might be of propaganda value to some, it is clearly not in the interests of either country that they should continue. They are unnecessarily poisoning an important relationship.

It is way past time that the political leadership on both sides cracked the whip and instructed their bureaucrats and constituencies to solve this problem once and for all.

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.