World Conference Against Racism: South Africa Between a Rock and a Hard Place
and Ben Cashdan
IF YOU WERE planning a holiday in South Africa's east-coast resort of Durban before the warm winter season is over, you'd be well advised to steer clear of the city during the last few days of August and the first week in September.
Unless that is, you are a government official, a UN bureaucrat, an academic or a journalist with a burning desire to discuss racism, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance. If you are one of the latter, you probably already have your hotel room booked.
If you are one of thousands of delegates coming for the official inter- governmental World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) you may well be booked into the Royal Hotel, with its splendid colonial-style accommodation. If you are a lowly NGO worker, you will most likely have to make do with the spartan Holiday Inn Garden Court.
Either way your programme will be very full, as you ponder the fight against racism in Durban's world class International Convention Centre (ICC), conveniently located opposite the Hilton Hotel and a stone's throw away from the beachfront, rubbing shoulders with Presidents, Prime Ministers and luminaries such as Kofi Annan, Thabo Mbeki, Mary Robinson, Manning Marable and Harry Belafonte.
During your stay in Durban you may take a stroll along Marine Parade, the beachfront promenade, to be confronted by a stream of Zulu- speaking hawkers (South African slang for informal street vendors) eking out an existence or Durban's incongruous rickshaw drivers desperately competing to pull you along in decorated two-wheeled chariots. As long as you stick to the official conference transport you won't be bothered too much by the beggars, pickpockets and prostitutes.
It's highly unlikely that you'll follow any of these unfortunate folk back to their homes in the townships of Chatsworth, Cato Manor or Umlazi where unemployment is up above 50% since the collapse over the past few years of the textile industry and other globally 'uncompetitive' sectors. As South Africa has implemented WTO tariff reductions, these jobs have moved to East Asian sweatshops where wages are even lower than in Africa.
You will almost certainly not see the desperate living conditions of South Africa's poorest Indian community in the council flats in Chatsworth's Unit 3, known owing to its poverty as 'Bangladesh'. Last year Bangladesh hit the headlines when ANC-led Durban Metro Council evicted several families from their council flats for failing to keep up with their rents. The council is determined to ensure that rents are up to date in preparation for privatisation of housing. The community resisted the evictions, with Indian grandmothers in saris defending the homes of their Zulu neighbours from the municipal police, who resorted to tear gas and rubber bullets.
Thirty years ago these families were evicted by the apartheid government for being too dark in complexion. The ANC is now evicting the same families for being poor. Mandela's friend and biographer Professor Fatima Meer labelled the council's actions "fascist brutality".
You also won't have time to visit the tiny and leaky matchbox housing, constructed by the ANC government under its reconstruction and development programme (RDP) into which some of the destitute are being relocated along the Higginson Highway, far from jobs and services. You'll also miss the misery of the shackland that is Cator Manor. With your busy conference schedule you definitely won't have time to take an hour's drive north along the N3 highway to Hammarsdale, a former KwaZulu homeland 'growth point', its factories subsidised by the apartheid government to keep black people in the banthustans. Now the jobs are gone and the residents of Mpumalanga township just outside Hammarsdale are literally starving. No-one is quite sure whether the twenty bodies in the morgue each weekend are victims of poverty, AIDS, cholera or some combination. In Mpumalanga, former ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) activists, once avowed enemies, are now united against a new enemy: Durban Metro Council. Their objection, Durban Metro's new cost- recovery policies. In Mpumalanga, many residents received subsidised water even under apartheid. Now the ANC government is installing water meters and cutting off services to those too poor to pay
Cholera broke out in Durban and its surrounds last year, making 80 000 people sick and killing 180 across the country. At its centre a community who used to get subsidised water but was recently disconnected.
Just before you touch down at Durban airport, you may catch a glimpse of the township of Wentworth, where black workers recently struck against oil refineries owned by Shell, British Petroleum and a Malaysian oil company after in the same week one worker was killed by exposure to hydrochloric acid and another was injured in a machine. In Wentworth, where workers live on the hillsides all around the plants, inhaling noxious fumes day and night, residents are 8 times more likely to get asthma, bronchitis and leukaemia than the South African population as a whole. Protective labour legislation, won during the anti-apartheid struggle, is currently being rolled back in the interest of international competitiveness.
If you don't see most of this, you may not be struck by the poignancy and potential for irony of our ANC government hosting a world conference against racism in a city where the majority are black and poor, and a minority, mostly still white, continue to enjoy the spoils of the economy.
A question on many peoples' minds in the run up to the World Conference Against Racism is whether the economic forces and policies, both local and global, which continue to keep so many black people poor, will be up for debate in the conference at all.
Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this uncertainty is the behind-the- scenes tussle over one particular agenda item in the conference: whether the Global South, and people of colour in the north (led by African- Americans), deserve reparations for the crimes visited upon them by the largely-white north: viz. slavery, colonialism, and apartheid. African delegates meeting in Dakar in January to prepare for the WCAR highlighted reparations as the key issue for discussion in Durban. As recently as this week, the US and some European governments are reported to have threatened to withdraw their funding or to boycott the conference altogether if the issue of reparations is to be included. US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned supporters of reparations to withdraw this issue or risk "derailing" the conference. In South Africa, opinion appears divided. Jubilee South Africa has been outspoken in its support for reparations. Jubilee leaders such as Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town have repeatedly called on Swiss banks to pay back the profits they made from trading in apartheid gold and to compensate the victims of apartheid violence for the support the banks provided to Pretoria during the 1980s. In 1986, when PW Botha declared a debt standstill, Swiss bankers provided a major bailout.
Yasmine Sooka, a Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has argued that families of freedom fighters killed or injured during the struggle should receive compensation from the banks for prolonging apartheid.
Interviewed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January, Thabo Mbeki distanced himself from this call. Whilst commending Jubilee 2000 for its success in promoting debt relief, Mbeki said of the reparations campaign, "It's an NGO call. As government we've never made such a call."
Granted Mbeki was in Davos to promote South Africa to investors as a safe and lucrative place to do business through his Millenium Africa Plan (MAP). A demand from the president that foreign banks pay back profits made over a decade ago would hardly have helped his cause. In line with Mbeki's reticence, top South African officials appear reluctant to take sides publicly in the debate over the conference agenda.
The differing views on reparations are associated with quite different assessments of how racism should be approached at the WCAR. Northern governments would generally like to see the discussion focus on racial ideologies and psychologies and the need for education and tolerance. This personalised approach to discussing racism avoids an acknowledgement that Europe and the USA built their economies through systematic racially- based exploitation and dispossession. "Civil society" groups in South Africa such as organised labour and NGOs (whose contribution in Durban is confined to a separate venue at a separate time) believe that the WCAR must consider the systemic causes of racial inequality. Amongst these are the historical legacy of slavery and colonialism, the impact of the current phase of corporate-led globalisation on jobs and living standards in the global south, and, last but not least, the effect of domestic economic policies on the living standards of the black majority. With the help of the World Bank, South Africa introduced its own home- grown structural adjustment programme in 1996, under the rubrik Growth Employment and Redistribution or Gear. Gear focused on macro-economic indicators such as budget-deficit reduction, replacing the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP which had emphasised meeting the basic needs of the population.
The South African government is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it limits itself to the "personalised" approach, it risks being co-opted into an agenda set by the north. Debt cancellation would be off the agenda, as would most of the concerns being raised by grassroots groups in South Africa.
On the other hand, if the South African government takes a courageous line against the racial disparities exacerbated by globalisation it risks throwing the spotlight on its own neo-liberal policies. Since the introduction of Gear, life has undoubtedly become harder for the vast majority of the poorest black South Africans. In 1990 South Africa was the second most unequal society in the world. After seven years of an ANC government SA has won first place.
One option, of course, is to keep quiet and try to bask in the glory of the political 'miracle' of the South African transition and the racial reconciliation it was built on. As conference hosts there will be plenty of opportunity for pomp and ceremony, and to promote Durban as a tourist destination. For those off the tourist track in Durban's black and Indian townships, however, it increasingly seems as if the struggle against racism is a struggle against our own post- apartheid government.
While the government bureaucrats meet in the ICC, and NGOs parley in Kingsmead stadium, community groups across the city are planning their own action. They will call for an end to cost-recovery in poor townships, an end to evictions, a halt to commercialisation and privatisation of services and a renewed focus on meeting basic needs.
Their 'Concerned Citizens Forum' or CCF, formed two weeks ago by poor people of every race and religion is likely to make one of the most powerful statements against racism at the WCAR, although they may not be in a lavish venue, and the TV cameras of the world may miss them.
However we urge all those international groups and activists on the way to Durban to make contact with grassroots groups like the CCF. We'll certainly be with them, and we promise to bring you the story from the grassroots outside the WCAR in future postings.
Ben Cashdan is a lecturer and filmmaker based in Johannesburg. His five documentaries on globalisation and struggles for social justice will be on tour during the fall.
Dennis Brutus is a patron of Jubilee South Africa and a long-time fighter against South African and now global apartheid.