Reflections on Durban

Reflections on Durban

The United States cannot dodge its responsibility by withdrawing from the World Conference Against Racism.


To some of us in Africa, it seems as if your new President is scared of getting involved. Whereas Clinton entertained us with his exploits, throwing apologies around liberally afterwards, Bush seems to prefer pre-climactic withdrawal. We are referring of course to the US government's premature departure from the World Conference Against Racism. This was the highest-profile pull-out ever staged by such a low-profile delegation. One wonders whether US officials were sent there with the express purpose of being withdrawn in protest.

What Bush overlooked is that the damage has already been done, and the United States cannot dodge its responsibility by its absence. The damage we are referring to is the legacy of centuries of conquest, subjugation and economic exploitation on the descendants of slaves and on colonized and indigenous peoples. Granted, Bill Clinton's apologies pale into insignificance by comparison.

In reality, the former colonial and slave-trading powers needed this conference more than the so-called victims. This was a unique opportunity for Western governments to look on politely while representatives of the poor and marginalized aired their grievances, and for those governments to make a symbolic gesture in the direction of their victims–infinitely preferable to the hard-core demonstrators on the streets of Seattle or Genoa.

The European Union recognized this. The Belgian foreign minister stayed an extra night in Durban, holding up an important EU summit in Brussels, in order to try to come up with a final conference declaration. "One of the main reasons we need this conference to be a success" he said at his press conference, "is to provide a reply to the 'anti-globalists.'"

The message Europe wanted to give to the antiglobalization movement is that Western powers are aware of their historical responsibility for creating poverty and inequality and are on top of the situation. Fancy footwork by Europe insured just this outcome. The conference declaration denounces slavery and colonialism and recommends remedies based on a "developmental partnership," such as "promotion of foreign direct investment and market access."

Presto! Western elites are absolved of the guilt they might feel for having built their economies on systematic racial exploitation, and, as if by magic, minor modifications to their present economic policies are offered as remedies. No need for wild calls like reparations, and never mind a fundamental rethinking of contemporary capitalism. And as a bonus, Thabo Mbeki and leaders of other African elites consent to the outcome. Not a bad result for Europe. Seems like Bush missed the boat.

Even greater legitimacy was accorded the UN conference by the presence of thousands of nongovernmental delegates at the parallel NGO Forum. Not only did African presidents endorse the conference outcome but those boisterous civil society types, who have developed a predilection for trying to sabotage international gatherings of world leaders, had their own meeting just a block away.

Not surpisingly, the NGO declaration contains much more radical language than the official UN document. It condemns the contemporary racist exploitation by states of groups such as the Palestinians, the Dalits (or "untouchables") in India and present-day slaves in Mauritania and elsewhere. And it calls for direct financial reparations to be paid to the victims of racism. It also points to present forms of globalization as an ongoing source of racial inequality.

What impact will the NGO document have on the UN or its member governments? Perhaps the best indication of this is given by the response of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to the NGO document. Her first, private reaction was apparently to reject it outright. Later, at a press conference, she said that while it contained some good ideas, she could not recommend it to the main conference. In particular, she felt that its reference to Zionism as racism was unhelpful.

Could it be that the whole multimillion-dollar event, including the NGO Forum, was a charade, designed to give the impression that the more enlightened elements of global civil society have bought into the empty promises of globalization? That certainly was the prevailing view in the third gathering, the unofficial "pavement conference" attended by 20,000 landless and penniless people from around Durban and elsewhere in South Africa.

Unable to afford the $100 entrance fee to the NGO Forum, Durban's poor held their own assembly and march. This was the largest political protest in South Africa since the demise of apartheid, outside of a labor-union general strike. A few US conference delegates strayed wide-eyed into the gatherings. They may not have understood the slogans being chanted by the masses in Zulu: Ulawula ngobubanxa Mbeki, e-South Africa ("Hey Mbeki, you're messing up South Africa"); Wena wawutshelwua ubani ukuthi amanzi ayakhokhelwa? ("Who told you you could sell us water?").

But they couldn't have missed the placards: Landlessness equals racism. You promised us land: you gave us jail. The landless of south africa support the landless of palestine. Since the demise of apartheid, just 1 percent of South Africa's land has been redistributed to the black majority. White farmers still own 85 percent of the land. Homeless families who recently put up shacks on unused land in Johannesburg to fend off the winter cold were promptly and mercilessly evicted by the ANC municipality.

Residents of Durban's still-segregated black townships also condemned the ANC's cost-recovery policies, which have led to thousands of people having their water and electricity cut off and 100,000 people contracting cholera in the past year. Thousands of workers marched to protest the job losses associated with South Africa's home-grown (but by co-written by the World Bank) structural adjustment program. South African unemployment is estimated to be around 40 percent, and according to the UN Development Program, South Africa recently overtook Brazil to become the most unequal society on the planet.

Across South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, a new social movement is forming to resist the new economic apartheid, which comes in the form of structural adjustment, corporate excess and debt-dependency. This is a global apartheid system felt almost as strongly in the ghettos of Western cities as in the sweatshops of the Third World. The "Durban Social Forum" was founded on the streets outside the World Conference Against Racism to challenge this system.

At Pôrto Alegre in Brazil in February 2002, the second "World Social Forum" will unpack an alternative vision for the world, in which peoples' basic rights are paramount. Later this month protesters will once again challenge the World Bank's dependency-creating policies in Washington, DC. Then in November, thousands across the world will challenge the proposed new round of WTO talks to be held in the inaccessible state of Qatar. In September 2002 many thousands will return to Johannesburg to challenge the hype at the Rio+10 summit on sustainable development.

Together with the local struggles for jobs, homes, services, education and healthcare, this is the real cutting edge of the fight against racism on a global scale. The World Conference Against Racism never provided a real opportunity for change. We are pleased that the US government revealed its real interests by going home. At least Bush, unlike his predecessor, represents a more honest approach.

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