Discrimination goes on trial
The stage is set for a potentially explosive UN conference on racism in Durban. Preview by Pusch Commey.
South Africa. The setting could not have been better for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The choice of South Africa is well founded. It is the birthplace of apartheid, the evil system that made racism official and enforced by law.
The hangover still persists, with several discriminatory practices still in vogue. Ironically on 31 May, at the 40th anniversary of the declaration of South Africa as a republic by Hendrik Verwoerd, a huge statue of apartheid president G.J Strijdom in Pretoria came tumbling down unassisted.
According to Article 1 (1) of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, racism is defined as:
?Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms; in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.?
From the look of things, this conference promises to be far removed from a talking shop. It will be geared towards practical steps to eradicate racism, with an action plan for prevention, education and protection. It also aims to provide effective remedies for the victims of racism and racial discrimination, the legacy of which still causes untold hardships today.
An expected 1,200 delegates will converge in Durban. Already the battle lines are being drawn with governments, lobby groups and NGOs jockeying for positions.
Whether one supports a position or not will largely hinge on which side of the global economic divide one is on. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that anti-Semitism is hot on the Conference’s agenda while slavery and reparations were being hotly contested (at the time of going to press).
The slave ship that never was
So, whose interest will the conference serve? A clue can be found in the 13th International Aids Conference held at the same venue on 13 July last year, (see NA, Sept 2000). It was sponsored and hijacked by the big drug companies who sought to impose their agenda by shouting down everybody inimical to their interests.
This time the conference, being held under the auspices of the United Nations, may be wholly funded by the South African government to the tune of 100 million rand (or £9m). President Mbeki’s government has already set aside 64 million rand and made appeals to the usual donors to make up the difference. They have not been forthcoming.
Their gripe is the determination of African countries and the African Diaspora to put slavery and reparations firmly on the Conference agenda. An American delegation has already circulated an unofficial paper protesting the inclusion of slavery and reparations on the agenda.
Which brings in the West African slave ship that didn’t exist. Extensive media coverage of the phantom slave ship that turned out to be a damp squib sets the stage for mischief, and highlights possible Western media collaboration in the whole attempt to keep slavery and reparations off the Conference agenda.
Transatlantic slavery, having taken place mainly along the west coast of Africa, the West has long tried to sell the theory that active collaboration by Africans themselves precipitated the slave trade. So if it can be imprinted on people’s minds that even today West Africans still engage in slavery (and child slavery at that), then the slave masters can expiate their guilt and avoid paying reparations.
Since January this year, there have been attempts to water down the final declaration of the Conference (as reported by New African, May issue).
Other attempts have been made to obfuscate the language and make it meaningless. Already, the South African foreign ministry (supported by church leaders in the country) has accused Britain, USA and Canada of trying to block attempts (in Geneva where the final declaration is being written) to declare the slave trade as a ?crime against humanity?.
A preparatory meeting in Geneva on 1 June was deadlocked on the issue. Britain and its allies threatened to downgrade their presence at the conference if the problem of slavery and reparations were not resolved in their favour, before the conference opens.
The British, supported by Spain and Portugal (the original mothers of transatlantic slavery), and also Canada and USA, are arguing that the slave trade was legal at the time it took place, and therefore cannot today be called ?a crime against humanity?. Rather they want the Durban Conference to declare it only as ?an appalling tragedy?.
But the same could be said of apartheid in South Africa. It was legal at the time, yet the whole world condemned it and fought for its abolition.
Britain and its allies fear that an apology could lead to the opening of the floodgates of lawsuits against them for their roles in slavery and colonialism. Some British newspapers, as usual following the lead set by their government, have taken up the megaphone to trumpet the official line.
?The British and US governments are right to resist pressure from African countries to have the slave trade declared a crime against humanity,? said an editorial in the British daily, The Independent, on 4 June.
?That does not mean [slavery] was not terrible and inhumane and wrong,? the paper continued. ?But it was not a crime by the values of the time, and only gradually came to be seen as such.
?Nor, however, is it fair to see the demands of African nations supported yesterday by South African church leaders as simply a negotiating ploy to extract more development money out of the rich nations. The rich world should do more for many of the countries of Africa, but that should be based on present need rather than past history,? the paper added.
But Africa and its Diaspora would not be swayed by such sophistry.
The Africans want the conference to:
?Affirm that the slave trade is a unique tragedy in the history of humanity, particularly against Africans a crime against humanity which is unparalled, not only in its abhorrent barbaric feature but also in terms of its enormous magnitude, its institutionalised nature, its transnational dimensions and especially its negation of the essence of the human nature of the victims.?
Britain and its allies have proposed a counter wording to: ?Affirm that slavery and the slave trade are an appalling tragedy in the history of humanity?.
On 21 May, the British daily, The Guardian reported that: ?The Europeans are prepared to say slavery is a crime but only when applied to present-day trafficking in humans in countries such as Sudan.?
The paper quoted a British official as saying: ?What the EU is ready to do in terms of language is to say that if it occurs today, it is a crime against humanity.?
The paper continued: ?The United States is prepared to recognise all slavery as a crime against humanity, but wants to shift the focus from the transatlantic trade and match it with the centuries-long traffic in humans from east and central Africa by Arab slave dealers. But it objects to paying compensation, as does the UK.?
Inside South Africa racist incidents blatantly occur, six years after black majority rule. The latest incident this year among many was the case of a black boy, Tsepo Matloga, who was badly beaten, shot dead and his body disposed off in a lake by nine white members of a rugby club, apparently for trespassing. He went hunting on a white-owned farm.
However, the bulk of discriminatory practices occur daily in sophisticated ways. From the flat for hire that is taken on hearing a black voice, to the TV game show with big money at stake that will ask you questions about Popeye and Jane Eyre.
Who makes the global rules affecting Africans is of crucial importance. An ingenious way to compensate those who have been forced to start long after the economic starting gun went off, and are now being told of the inevitability of globalisation, needs to be vigorously addressed. Otherwise it will be a festering sore. Economics drives everything.
Indigenous populations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Americas will have their say. The Palestinians are coming in force. Gypsies are intent on putting their plight in the spotlight and gays will be carrying their fight to Durban.
Compensation will be a driving force at the conference even though as South Africa’s foreign minister, Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma, rightly points out, one cannot put a price on the effects of slavery.
A cocktail of contention awaits delegates. Emotions will be sorely tested, and hopefully good sense will prevail. After all, in Durban, as they say, it is summer always.
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