And so the farce begins
Today at 11am, Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, opened the NGO Forum of the World Conference Against Racism accompanied by Human Rights High Commissioner, Mary Robinson. The audience had been pumped up by the Zulu war dancing and hence greeted Mbeki warmly and enthusiastically. His speech was littered with self-congratulatory references to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and satisfied all expectant NGOs with praise for their part in its defeat. The NGOs, who have been systematically excluded from the official talks and whose messages have been marginalised, were so desperate for recognition and attention that it wouldn't have mattered what Mbeki said, they would have cheered him on anyway. There seems to be a collective fog hovering over this NGO Forum and the NGOs are in denial of the fact that they are not a part of the process. Mbeki talked of gender struggles, global apartheid and even mentioned Palestine once. However he said these things un-committedly and any passion seemed to be projected onto him by the enthusiasm of the audience.
After, there was a small press conference on the other side of the stadium organised by the South African independent media centre in response to the content of the Mbeki speech. The panel identified the use of their own revolutionary language by Mbeki that made them feel "gagged", as the chair phrased it. Dennis Brutus, a South African activist and academic and Yasmin Sooka from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted Mbeki's co-optation of the language of those critical of the conference. Brutus complimented the NGO alliance, SANGOCO, on a well-presented opening and an "outstanding speech by the chair". However when speaking on the Mbeki speech, Brutus was "struck by the absence of the word: reparations." Mbeki spoke of fighting global apartheid but failed to mention that he was embracing an economic programme that increased poverty and homelessness. While Mbeki spoke of the present world order built on slavery and colonialism, his government is busy privatising the water and electricity in South Africa, which is resulting in a 'pay or die' scenario for people here. As he was spoke about the successes of the anti-apartheid struggles, local people are being forced to drink water from toilets and since the water was privatised, 200 people in Durban have died from cholera. This is the brave new world of post-apartheid, neo-liberal South Africa.
The third panellist at the press conference, Oupa Lehulere from Khanya College, explored the idea that Mbeki's speech was a clever piece of PR. It had just the right amount of revolutionary language to "pacify people" whilst warning the rest of the world, particularly the USA, that they should "cut him into" the world economy. Lehulere accused Mbeki of working for the good of the black elites in South Africa. This speech being a coded message to the USA that he could control the people whilst using the threat of mass uprisings to add leverage to his bid for a piece of the global economic pie. South Africa has become the "outpost for Washington" on the continent. "South Africa is the new coloniser of the African continent. If Washington can't do anything in the Great Lakes region, they just send in South Africa". As one member of the audience at the press conference noted, "There is a G8 and a half, and it's South Africa". Unfortunately for Mbeki, President Bush does not possess enough diplomatic finesse to comprehend the relationship and is not going along as nicely as it should with the arrangement. Lehulere explored the NGO Forum further stating that the reason why NGOs are so easily persuaded by Mbeki, is that they have never "risen up against injustice. They have reflected, contemplated and maybe even organised a march - but never risen up".
Yasmin Sooka then drew attention to the fact that Mbeki did not mention the poor and homeless, those still suffering under a lack of reparations for South African apartheid. "People who had their human rights stolen from them under apartheid still live in poverty without justice while those who committed these atrocities walk free, receiving their pensions and not facing the consequences of their actions." This is three years after the latest report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was sent to the government. She went on to point out that the 0 entry fee to the NGO conference had made it impossible for those affected by racism in this country to participate. Her most poignant comment, which received a round of applause, was "Mbeki didn't talk about the poor, the landless, the homeless. He didn't talk about those who get up in the morning and don't know that the sun shines for them as well".