World Conference Against Racism: South Africa Between a Rock and a Hard Place


and Ben Cashdan


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.


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


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



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.


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".


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


‘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.


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.



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