Under a gray sky and a red sun, thousands of South Africans gathered for the Landless People’s Assembly. The Assembly is made up of those forced off their land during apartheid who are awaiting compensation. They sat on blue plastic chairs on the dry grass of a fairground minutes away from the modern International Convention Center (ICC), where the United Nations World Conference Against Racism was taking place. Wearing shirts that read “Landlessness = Racism! Give Us Our Land Now!” the whole crowd rose to dance to freedom songs. “You promised us land; you gave us jails,” said one Zulu man, addressing his comments to the absent South African president Thabo Mbeki. “If you will not take action, we will take back the land.”
I catch a ride from the Assembly to the opening ceremonies of the UN conference with a young Indian man, thin-mustached and wearing a protest T-shirt. I ask him what organization he’s with and he pulls out a badge. He’s an undercover police officer. “Gone are the days of just slapping people around and beating them up,” he says. “The laws are for the criminals now.” I check the doors for my escape route. “I like this job because you interact with people,” he says. “I’m a people person, you see.” Then he asks me out for a date. I tell him I’m a people person too, which is why I don’t do the kind of work he does and that is the end of that.
The opening ceremonies of the UN Conference begin with a light show, techno music, and ballet dancers. Three huge TV screens show the arriving heads of state, almost all from African countries. Jesse Jackson walks in with Fidel Castro, drawing scattered applause. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan invokes Steven Biko, Oliver Thambo, and Gandhi—whose names are getting worn out here. Managing to sound both radical and conciliatory without offering specifics Annan says, “Rather than pick on any one country, let us aim to leave here with a commitment from every country to combat racism.”
After the second round of speeches, I leave the UN, the guards, and the expensive pastries splayed out on tables, to join the Durban Social Forum protest against poverty and privatization. The Durban Social Forum—made up of the Landless People’s Movement, Jubilee 2000, and various student and youth groups—clearly feels at home in the streets. Over 5000 people do a chant-hop dance, occasionally breaking into shaking and somersaults puncuated by shouts of “Amanda!” (Power!). Fruit sellers and passersby smile and raise their fists.
Determined to present the Landless People’s Declaration to Annan and Mbeki, the protesters gather in front of the ICC, demanding entrance. The line of police in riot gear looks familiar—bored and dulled. When a low-level UN official comes out to take the document, some protesters depart to rally in a nearby park while others stay until fat drops of rain send them running under awnings for cover.
Inside the convention center, Annan invokes a slogan from Mandela’s 1994 election campaign: “Sekunjalo. The time has come.” The time has come and gone to do some of the most difficult work around racism and poverty. Will the UN heed the declarations presented to them by those in the streets? Will the UN do the work of reparations? The work of eradicating environmental racism? The work of finding a solution for refugees and the landless?
Next: Africans and African Americans discuss reparations.
“A Summit of Their Own: Youth Demand Action Outside the World Conference Against Racism” by Rachel Neumann
“Toxic Tour: A Visit to Waste-Dumping Sites Shows UN Conference to Be Ignoring Environmental Racism” by Deepa Fernandes
“Compensation Counts: An Activist Speaks on Reparations and the UN Conference Against Racism” by Chisun Lee
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2001