Nothing in modern times has symbolized the scourge of racism–and the potential for overcoming it–more than South Africa’s recent history. For this reason, the choice of Durban as the venue for this week’s United Nations World Conference Against Racism has deep and deliberate resonance. But South Africa has, perhaps unintentionally, now provided an even more powerful symbol for what the discourse of racism is really about: a national strike, organized by the labor federation Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), that took place on the eve of the Durban conference.

The Cosatu strike is a protest against the African National Congress government’s “neo-liberal” economic policy, specifically, its plans for privatizing state assets and the consequent loss of jobs and potential decline of essential services to poor people. What Cosatu and the ANC are really fighting about is how to engage with the process of globalization. The government insists that it has formulated economic policy in congruence with international trends so as to make South Africa a significant global player, thereby attracting resources that will enable the economy to grow and the lives of ordinary people to improve. The labor federation, on the other hand, is striking a blow against this model, declaring that it is tailored strictly to the designs of the suits in Frankfurt and Washington, and that it has demonstrably increased–rather than decreased–the poverty levels of poor people in the south.

The ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party have traditionally prosecuted the liberation struggle in alliance and now putatively govern the country together, but the trading of insults between former comrades has been so severe that it is difficult to imagine the alliance pulling through intact. Each side has publicly called the other a liar and a traitor. Cosatu–buttressed by the SACP–accuses the government of kowtowing to the global designs of IMF and the World Bank and of enriching a small, black, capitalist elite (the prime beneficiaries of privatization) while riding roughshod and arrogantly over the wishes and aspirations of the South African majority.

The government counters that “state restructuring,” as it terms privatization, has been part of ANC policy since the early 1990s, and that its popular majority has actually increased since it released the contentious Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic policy to which Cosatu is so implacably opposed. Furthermore, it accuses its alliance partners of irresponsibly washing South Africa’s dirty linen in public–and of engaging in gross opportunism–by launching the strike on the eve of a conference that is meant to be a showpiece for South Africa’s potential to overcome the conflicts of the past. In so doing, the state says, Cosatu has distracted attention from the fight against racism that is the conference’s core business.

However correct Thabo Mbeki and his government might be in their other assertions, they are wrong in this last one. For the national strike–and the intense fallout that it has caused in South African politics–is a semaphore for what this conference is really about: not so much the fact of racism, but the gross global inequities it has created between North and South, rich and poor, light and dark; and the potential strategies for reconciling a world increasing polarized into “developed” and “undeveloped.”

How does this play out in the conference? Firstly, the event has been overshadowed by the stale, old debate (which Kofi Annan has said will not be continued at the conference) about whether Zionism is racist–a debate that seems criminally self-indulgent given the current conflagration in Israel and Palestine and the need for immediate action, and which has led to the unforgivable consequence of an official US “dis” of the event by downgrading its attendance to that of midlevel bureaucrats. And so the United States makes the point, inside the conference, that Cosatu is trying to make on the streets: the utter arrogance of the North and the powerful when it comes to matters of import to the South and the poor (because, true or not, a half-century after the Holocaust the vast majority of the world reads Israeli Jew as “North” and “white” and “oppressor” and Palestinian Arab as “South” and “black” and “oppressed”).

The other contentious debate overshadowing the conference has been the issue of reparations for slavery. The effect of the United States’ act of pique has been to pull from the conference the country that has been most radically formed (or deformed) by slavery and that has the most power, in today’s global economy, to rectify its consequences. This does not necessarily mean agreeing to pay reparations (which is really development aid by another name anyway, so what on earth is the big deal?). It means, too, promoting the credo of democracy and good governance upon the African continent and drawing the obvious parallels between the West African slavetrading kings of centuries past and the authoritarian tyrants of the post-colonial period.

Writing in the South African newspaper Business Day this week, political commentator Jonny Steinberg has noted that “by staying away, the US has guaranteed the reparations debate will miss the point. In the discourse of the conference, the US will become the enemy, and Africa’s real nemeses will escape scrutiny. The Liberias of the continent will be free to keep spinning a narrative of a downtrodden Africa raped by a racist superpower, and that narrative will shape the reparations debate for years to come.”

The conference’s draft program of action notes that people of African, Asian and indigenous American descent continue to be victims of the consequences of slavery, the slave trade, colonialism and apartheid, and urges signatories “to adopt appropriate remedial measures in order to halt and reverse the consequent marginalization, poverty, underdevelopment and socio-economic exclusion still affecting many such peoples in many parts of the world.”

Opening the NGO Forum of the conference this week, South African President Thabo Mbeki reiterated this, calling for “a measurable commitment within countries and among all nations that practical steps will be taken and resources allocated” to eradicate these legacies. But he went further, placing his call within the context of globalization: “The divide between the North and the South, between the developed and the developing worlds also coincides with the divide between white and black, broadly defined,” he said, stating that the conference should address itself to the way that globalization might be “a force for human emancipation from poverty and underdevelopment” rather than “the further entrenchment of the structural disempowerment of billions of people, making it even more difficult for them to break out of the trap of poverty and underdevelopment.”

This is exactly the debate that he and his Cosatu adversaries are having through their voluble disagreement over South Africa’s economic policy.