Sunday, I arrived on the cracked brown earth of southeastern South Africa after traveling for more than 36 hours. It took a few hours to find our “holiday flat”—a sagging, skinny brown building with four security gates squeezed tight between two 24-hour bars. Thus far, the NGO (nongovernmental organization) Forum of the World Conference Against Racism has been very conference-like. You would think an international summit on racism and xenophobia might be volatile, but so far everyone agrees that racism is bad and we must all work together. It’s been up to the young people and the Palestinians to create some excitement, which they’ve done pretty well—shouting down speakers and waving signs.
Although the U.S. isn’t officially here, its presence is everywhere. America shares a large part of the responsibility for many of the economic and political problems that people are talking about—from reparations for slavery and colonialism to the Israeli occupation to bombing in Puerto Rico. And American privilege is visible in the overwhelming number of Americans walking around. But the presence of the U.S.-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is hard-won. They raised money through bake sales and raffle tickets to make sure their delegation reflected the urban young people hardest hit by U.S. domestic policy.
NGO tents are set up on the grass of a cricket field, and from a distance it looks like a big wedding. But upon closer inspection,where discussions about anti-Semitism are supposed to be taking place, 10 armed guards stand by while Zionists and Palestinians yell in each other’s faces. More inspiring is a scene from the Youth Summit that began the conference. There, Menar, a 15-year-old Palestinian girl from the Dheisheh Refugee camp, walks up to Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner of human rights, and asks her to please say something about Palestine. Later, she says, “I used to think the refugee camp was Palestine and Palestine was the world. Then I went to visit my village. And my village said to me, I want you. I want all of you. And so I knew I had to be the last generation to suffer and struggle.”
At the end of the second day, a large group of Dalit Indians are drumming and singing. South African service workers stop, listen, put down their bags and join. A Dalit Catholic priest dances with a Portuguese woman wearing a tight white dress. The Indian ocean stretches as far as the eye can see, a turquoise color with wild waves. Palm trees blow in the breeze and soldiers with AK-47s patrol the beach.
Tomorrow the landless workers movement marches through Durban. People from South Africa, Bolivia, India, and Aboriginal Australia will hold their own assembly. The Youth Summit, People’s Global Action, the International Landless People’s Assembly—the beginning of these international grassroots networks stand in marked contrast to the formality of the UN conference that begins September 1, reminders of the crucial difference between talk and action.
Next: Scenes from the Landless
Workers Assembley and the COSATU/Durban Social Forum March.
“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