It's becoming increasingly clear that when President Obama arrived at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa Tuesday, he stepped into an atmosphere so chaotic, disorganized, and unsafe that under any other circumstances the White House and Secret Service might well have insisted the president not appear.
FNB Stadium, where the memorial was held, seats 95,000 people. Even with a steady rain and thousands of empty seats in uncovered areas, there were tens of thousands of people in the area with the president. It appears most of them got in without going through any security.
"There were no security checks upon entry to the stadium," a local South African activist wrote Friday in a letter to the Johannesburg Star newspaper. "I walked freely to my seat without passing through metal detectors, being searched or any other check."
The stadium's main entrance was "completely unattended," a reporter for a Washington, D.C., television station told Politico. "There were no workers performing bag checks or pat-downs — there were no magnetometers to walk through, no metal detector wands being used — anywhere."
Britain's The Independent newspaper reported that "thousands of guests entering the FNB stadium in Soweto on Tuesday, especially those who had arrived very early, were not searched." In addition, members of the media "were permitted to enter the press area directly beneath where politicians and dignitaries were seated without being asked to show passes." And the Daily Mail reported that "the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched."
When South African security officials did perform security checks, they were often trying to restrain the bodyguards and entourage members of visiting dignitaries and celebrities. But conflicts seem to have been resolved by letting everybody in. For example, a delegation from Canada encountered problems until "all of the Canadians were able to get in during the confusion that reigned at security checkpoints as thousands of people poured in," according to a report in the National Post.
The South African government promised tight security for the event. "Working off plans developed for years in secret, the South African government is using an elite military task force, sniper teams and canine teams to help secure the stadium," CNN reported before the event. "In addition, helicopters and military jets frequently fly overhead."
It was a show of security. But it wasn't security.
And then there was the question of Thamsanqa Jantjie, the fake sign language interpreter who stood next to Obama as the president addressed the crowd. Jantjie has in the past been charged with murder, attempted murder, rape, theft, housebreaking and kidnapping, according to the South Africa-focused news organization eNCA.com. Jantjie also suffers from schizophrenia and told reporters he was hallucinating even as he stood next to Obama.
Allowing a man with Jantjie's record to stand within arm's length of the president of the United States is a huge security concern in itself. In addition, the lack of security checks at entrances raises the question of whether Jantjie had been searched for weapons. It's bad enough to have a violent, crazy man who has been through a body search stand next to the president. It's absolutely unconscionable to allow that man next to the president with no search.
If Jantjie was searched, it was likely not by Americans. Before the event, CNN reported that a "Secret Service spokesman noted that while the agency's preference is to bring their own metal detectors to such events, they do not have authority over local law enforcement in foreign countries and would be working with South African officials on security matters."
Even as Obama flew to South Africa, White House officials confidently told reporters that the South African government could take care of things. "The sheer number of leaders appearing in the same place at one time raises numerous logistical and security challenges, but the White House expressed confidence in the South African government's ability to handle the event," CNN reported. "'We have not heard any concerns,' Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One. 'The South Africans hosted the World Cup, so they have experience hosting significant crowds and managing events like this.'"
Now it is clear that American confidence was misplaced. And the United States is lucky the president emerged safely from the confusion and disorder of FNB Stadium.