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World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

August 31st 2001

WCAR : Mbeki speech to NGO Forum gets mixed reviews

South African president Thabo Mbeki opened a non-government conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, on August 28 with a speech welcomed by many visitors, but condemned by local activists as hypocritical.

More than 7 000 delegates from civil society organizations around the world are meeting for four days at the NGO (non-governmental organizations) Forum of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR). They are expected to produce a ten-year programme of action by which governments and civil society can strive to eliminate racism worldwide.

Recommendations and suggestions from the NGO Forum will be presented to the intergovernmental conference, that starts in Durban on September 1.

During an opening ceremony featuring Indigenous music and African dancing, Mercia Andrews, president of the SANGOCO - the South African NGO Coalition - welcomed delegates to the Forum. She said it would raise issues, such as caste and reparations, that would not be raised at the governmental conference, and name not only the victims of racism but also the perpetrators.

In her welcome address, the United Nations High Commissioner and secretary general of the World Conference, Mary Robinson, said in Durban that people were starting down a long road. "We have not got it right. We are not equal," she said. Robinson emphasized that millions do not know they have human rights; millions suffer from poverty, violence and lack of human dignity.

She received loud cheers when she challenged her audience to "break the silence" of those who have suffered: Roma and the Palestinians, victims of anti-Semitism, victims of Islamophobia, those discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, and the Dalits.

Language of liberation
In his address to the NGO Forum, President Mbeki said it and the intergovernmental conference would be meaningless unless they united around the call "Peoples of the world unite in struggle against racism until victory is achieved!"

"Neither will we have succeeded," Mbeki continued, "unless these historic conventions result in programmes of action that directly and urgently address the plight and the fate of those whom an irreversible history had defined as the progeny of slave parents, the children of the colonized, the offspring of the racially oppressed, those whom South African apartheid and global apartheid described and treated as sub-human."

"Today, none but the dim-witted and those deranged by fanaticism dare stand up and openly hoist the racist and sexist standards of the past ... [But] everywhere and without exception, race and gender continue to define the actual living spaces that billions of human beings occupy. They dictate the boundaries that frustrate the translation into reality of the noble concepts that people are born equal, and that all of us are creations of the same natural or super-natural impulse that gave birth to the human world," Mbeki declared, adding that if delegates had the chance to tour Durban, they would see, "as in a living museum, what racism did to this country".

"You will see patterns of human settlement that separate Africans, whites, Indians and coloureds... You will be exposed to the legacy of a centuries-long experience of slavery, colonialism and racial domination which we are determined to eradicate and will eradicate, despite the resistance of those who have benefited from injustice for many centuries."

The negative consequences of globalization had most affected people who were not white, Meki said. For countless black people, that had meant the further entrenchment of structural disempowerment, making it even more difficult for them to break out of the trap of poverty and underdevelopment.

Even as globalization marches triumphant throughout the globe, handsomely rewarding some, it also helps create its own enemy, Mbeki argued. "Driven to the barricades by unbearable suffering in the midst of plenty, this enemy will surely be weakened by poverty and hunger. At the same time, it will be greatly strengthened by the size of the army it can muster, made up of those who are poor and in many instances black. Against that army, there are no impregnable fortresses."

President Mbeki said he would like to believe that the common outcome sought by all is a measurable commitment within and among all nations that practical steps be taken, and resources allocated, to eradicate the legacy of slavery, colonialism and racism.

"A necessary first step in this regard is an unqualified acknowledgement of the fact that slavery, colonialism and racism represent chapters and practices in human history that cannot but be condemned unequivocally as unjust."

A member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation to the Forum, Yesudoss Moses from the National Council of Churches in India, said he thought the opening ceremony was wonderful. People had spoken from their hearts and named the issues to be considered. He was very happy that the Dalit and caste issues were so prominent, and hoped they would be carried into the governmental meeting.

However, panelists at a media conference hosted by a South African NGO, Indy-Media South Africa, said they had felt gagged by the way President Mbeki had used the language of liberation movements when his own policies continued to oppress people. Indy-Media is part of the international resistance to globalization, and claims to provide a "space for independent, alternative and critical voices".

Elsewhere Indy-Media described the WCAR as "silencing voices". "Governments in most of Western Europe," it said, "are enforcing racism under cover of clamping down on immigration, yet they will have a voice at the conference."

It criticised President Mbeki for presenting himself as a champion of the oppressed while his plans "are already benefiting old white business and the new black elite, yet are leaving the masses very much stuck in the legacy of apartheid".

A member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Yasmin Sooka, said that the president used revolutionary language and spoke against globalization, "yet our country pursues this relentlessly". His speech did not mention the poor, the homeless or the landless, and there was no word that reparations in South Africa would begin, she complained.

South African activist Oupa Lehulere called Mbeki's speech a well-done public relations job. "We've been had. We've been thrown a few phrases to remind us of the past." Mbeki had to be pressed to mention Dalits and Palestinians, and he did not refer to xenophobia, he added.

Activist, academic and "revolutionary poet" Dennis Brutus said: "Ironically, this is a government that has embarked on a programme that will increase poverty, hunger and homelessness."

In the lead-up to the governmental conference, 3 000 landless people representing landless communities in South Africa were expected to descend on Durban on August 29 as part of a campaign by a coalition of NGOs, landess peoples and rural movements.

This coalition declared that "A conference that claims to address racism without addressing colonialism and slavery will be a farce. A conference that claims to address racism without addressing landlessness will be a 'whitewash' of epic proportions, because the victims of colonial and apartheid land dispossession throughout the world are mainly black people, while the colonial and post-colonial beneficiaries are such dispossession have always been largely white."

"The new South African government promised to return land to the landless as part of the national liberation project," the declaration continues. "The RDP promised to return 30 percent of land to the landless in five years. Seven years later, less than two percent of the country's land has been transferred from white to black ownership and the country's grid of private property remains predominantly (at least 85 per cent) in the hands of a tiny white minority.

"It is disingenuous, to say the least, for this government to host international conferences in celebration of its defeat of apartheid when apartheid remains intact for more than 45 per cent of the population who still live rural areas, suffering desperate poverty and landlessness." Racism can not be defeated without radical land distribution, the declaration concluded.

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