It is hard to believe that just two short months ago, the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Other Forms of Intolerance (WCAR) took place in Durban, South Africa. Since that important gathering, the world has shifted on its axis as the repercussions of the horrific terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have exploded on the world’s political and military landscape and initially swept all other considerations to the sidelines.
For those who participated in the Durban dialogue, however, a critical part of trying to understand and act upon the new political terrain that confronts us has been to extract what lessons we learned and to apply them to our current struggle against war, racism and repression.
Despite the problems with the US delegation, which threatened to boycott and then walked out, one can only view the WCAR as a resounding success. This gathering attracted some 8,000 delegates to the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) part of the conference and in many ways has set the parameters for the struggles against racism for years to come. For the first time, many activists from the United States grasped the depth of the international isolation of the US government in international politics, and activists from the US were exposed to other burning questions such as those of the Dalit, the Roma peoples, and the Palestinian peoples.
The NGO Declaration represented a landmark achievement in the global antiracist struggle. The position that the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery represented a crime against humanity was a breakthrough for those who have consistently been campaigning for racial justice and against colonialism around the world. A comprehensive document laying out the problem and a ten-year plan of action was adopted.
Yet, more than that occurred. Many of the delegates from North America attending the NGO forum in Durban were in for a big surprise. Most had been informed of the big controversy over Palestinians or the demand for black reparations on the agenda. What they did not expect was an NGO forum that would unfold as a continuation of an ever more articulate and ever more vocal anti-globalization movement. Durban, South Africa must now be added to Seattle, Prague, and Genoa as cities where masses gathered to challenge the transnational financial and political institutions that have snared the world’s peoples into its unipolar globalization net of exploitation and oppression. But Durban represents at least two major differences.
Young whites and Europeans dominated the Seattle, Washington, and Genoa protests. The NGO Forum, on the other hand, attracted a global cross-generational activist core that was composed predominately of people of color from the Americas, from Africa, and from Asia. And while the U.S. and European protests concentrated on the economic institutions, Durban’s unique contribution was to place the fight against racism, xenophobia and other related intolerances at the center of its anti-globalization critique.
The NGO forum, of course, is not a gathering that was called in reaction to a get-together of the imperial elite and its financial and political institutions. The WCAR was a meeting that had been several years in the making, but its flavor and orientation was definitively seasoned with the worldwide anti-globalization protests that preceded it.
Merisha Andrews, President of SANGOCO (the South African group responsible for organizing the forum), first signaled the theme linking the WCAR to the anti-globalization movement. “We will talk about the Palestinians,” she proclaimed in her opening address to the conference delegates. “We will talk about the blockade of Cuba!” To a widely cheering crowd, she concluded that the youth and the NGOs must insist that we “not accept any strategy, or program, or policy that does not touch on the profound causes of all the inequalities: economic and social injustices.”
That theme was reinforced in the opening remarks of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who insisted that the legacy of slavery must be recognized: “I would like to believe,” he proclaimed, “that a common outcome we all seek is a measurable commitment within countries and among all nations that practical steps will be taken and resources allocated, actually to eradicate the legacy of slavery, colonialism and racism that condemns billions across the globe to poverty and despair.” He also made specific reference to the “process of globalization” which “rewards some handsomely” while imposing on others “unbearable suffering in the midst of plenty,” that can threaten social peace.
Many South African NGOs, however, felt that Mbeki’s remarks were merely for show since his economic policies — particularly the policy of privatization — are capitulation to IMF and World Bank directives, which have deepened the racial divide in post-apartheid South Africa between the white rich and the Black poor, even while elevating a new Black elite, at the fringe of the ruling centers of economic and political power.
That criticism was expressed in the daily street actions that accompanied the NGO forum. Protest marches and work stay-aways were organized by Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) to protest the government’s anti-worker policies. South African community groups also sponsored street protests and rallies in support of the Palestinian people, and for reparations. Militant mass marches also protested the status of those who remain landless seven years after the defeat of apartheid. Tens of thousands of South Africans were joined by NGO delegates in an impressive show of civil society strength. “We did not participate in the liberation struggle in order to sell out to the highest bidder,” one banner proclaimed.” “No to Privatization,” said another.
Nevertheless, some NGO delegates, particularly among the North American groups, felt uncomfortable with the linkage of racial justice demands and the critique of imperial globalization. The mainstream civil rights organizations like the Black Leadership Forum, for example, remain strictly wedded to a narrow perspective of demanding equal racial opportunity within the framework of the current economic, political, and military exigencies of the U.S. global empire.
Humberto Brown, International Secretary of the Black Radical Congress, is an example of U.S.-based racial justice activists who challenge this myopic view. He asserts that race alone cannot guarantee solidarity. Speaking in the Africa and African Descendants Caucus, Brown received enthusiastic applause when he referred to globalization and said the caucus should demand that the World Conference Against Racism “come out with a document that condemns the modern form of exploitation.”
The government gathering that occurred the week following the NGO forum fell far short of the broad vision projected by most of the NGO delegates and implicit in their standards for the struggle against racism, xenophobia and other intolerances. The U.S. and other former colonial powers chose not to pick up the racial justice gauntlet and engage in the debate. But it is one that cannot be put off forever. Many of the NGOs saw this gathering as only the opening salvo in a face-off between those who promote exploitative globalization schemes, which perpetuate racial and xenophobic discrimination, and those with a vision of a democratic world of economic and social justice with racial equity at its core.
As much as they would like to ignore these realities, it is extremely doubtful that the U.S. policymakers who conceived the current “war on terrorism” can bury this new understanding and this new consciousness among the global racial justice community under the rubble of Afghanistan.