from Africa in Transition

Restrained South African Reaction to the Murder of Pierre Korkie

December 9, 2014

Blog Post

Pierre Korkie was a South African teacher working in Yemen, where his wife, Yolande, did hospital relief work. They were kidnapped by al-Qaeda operatives in May 2013. Yolande Korkie was released without ransom payment in January 2014. Pierre Korkie, however, was held for a $3 million ransom. On December 5, he was murdered by his kidnappers during the course of the failed U.S. effort to free American journalist Luke Somers, who was also killed.

The South African non-governmental organization Gift of the Givers has said that it had secured Korkie’s release, scheduled for the following day with the payment of a $200,000 ransom. Hence, Korkie was murdered apparently only a few hours before he was to be released. It is usual al-Qaeda practice to murder its kidnap victims at the first sign of a rescue operation.

South Africa, like the United States, does not pay ransom and does not engage with terrorist groups.

Establishment South African reaction to Korkie’s murder has been dignified and restrained. The tone has been set by Yolande Korkie who has refused to finger-point and has called for the forgiveness of her husband’s murderers. Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers, has said that he does not blame the U.S. as “…They were acting in the interest of their own citizen. Any government would do that.” However, Stevens Mokgalapa, the shadow minister of international relations and cooperation of the Democratic Alliance, in his condolence message called on the South African government to “urgently engage with American representatives to get to the bottom of the circumstances that led to Mr. Korkie’s death.”

Popular reaction in the media has been more variable. There is skepticism about the U.S. assertion that the planners of the failed rescue attempt did not know that Somers and Korkie were being held in the same space.

Imtiaz Sooliman is reported by the New York Times as saying that his NGO had not informed American or Yemeni officials of the planned released because it had been told by al-Qaeda to keep the plans “confidential.” From the beginning of the kidnapping of Pierre and Yolande Korkie it has been working for their release.

Gift of the Givers, founded in 1992, is the largest disaster relief organization of African origin. It has worked in Bosnia, Pakistan, Somalia, and Haiti, among other places. It is Islamic in character (South Africa has a small but vibrant Muslim community).

The New York Times makes the important point that a no-ransom policy may lead family members of kidnap victims to become “amateur negotiators” with terrorists, and the Korkie tragedy shows “the dangerous disconnect that can occur when civilians are left to negotiate hostage releases on their own.”

As in the United States, the Korkie tragedy is likely to lead to calls for a re-evaluation of South Africa’s no-ransom policy. Yet the arguments for it remain sound. In some parts of the Sahel, ransom payments have become the largest single source of revenue for radical jihadis.