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Synthesis/Regeneration 27   (Winter 2002)

The NGO Forum of the World Conference Against Racism

Dark Days and Bright Nights

by Peniel E. Joseph, Black Radical Congress

In 1955, representatives of over 29 countries representing over 1 billion people convened in Bandung, Indonesia to craft an alternative vision of global society. Seeking space between Cold War liberalism and Soviet style Communism, radical humanism infused the “Bandung World.” Indeed, it was a glorious moment in recent world history, one that witnessed revolutionary anti-colonial movements sweeping across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. For African-Americans combating domestic white supremacy, Bandung represented the last best hope for dreams of freedom. Liberation movements in Ghana, Kenya, Algeria, Angola, and Mozambique emboldened black Americans engaged in their own life and death freedom struggles.

Unfortunately, the heady rush of post-colonial idealism in Africa gave way to the harsh reality of neo-colonialism. Perhaps the ultimate irony regarding these historic liberation movements is that for a new generation the Third Way—once irrevocably tied to the radical non-aligned movement—has come to be defined by the neo-liberalism and free-market ideology of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Almost 50 years after Bandung, the World Conference Against Racism convened in Durban, South Africa to discuss old and new issues related to the continuing legacies of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy. In truth, there were two separate conferences that, at times, contained overlap. The Non Governmental Organization (NGO) forum that took place from August 28–September 1 was comprised of grassroots activists, community organizers, students, labor representatives, and activist-scholars. The more well-publicized UN Forum that took place from August 31–September 7 featured a staged American walkout and enough expensive suits to keep an upscale men’s store in business through the next century. While not possessing the “official” credentials required to participate in the UN conference, I was fortunate enough to attend workshops, meetings, caucuses, and rap sessions as a delegate to the NGO Forum held at Durban’s Kingsmead Stadium and surrounding venues.

Held in the port city of Durban, South Africa’s third largest metropolis, the conference site provided ample evidence of both the hopes and impediments that course through the post-apartheid era. For first-time visitors to South Africa, which included this writer, arriving in Durban was accompanied by a combination of intense euphoria, gratitude and a humbling sense of the historic struggles that made this trip possible. With over 5,000 delegates in attendance the NGO forum was an energetic mixture of political activity that ranged from press conferences and workshops to plenary sessions. Like the masses of people gathered, the schedule was constantly in motion, slightly disorganized, sometimes disappointing, but always well-intentioned. The agendas were diverse as well. On tap was everything from groups against caste discrimination and land rights for South Africans to reparations for African descendants.

The final “Program of Action” included the demand for reparations for Africans and African descendants…

Although representing a wide array of local and geographically specific organizations, the delegates converged in connecting indigenous issues to slavery, colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy. More importantly, the delegates held workshops to inform and strategize on behalf of the dispossessed. The final “Program of Action” included the demand for reparations for Africans and African descendants that would take the form of restitution, monetary compensation, restoration, and satisfaction and guarantee of non-repetition. Instructively, these demands underscore the way in which Western Civilization has been built upon the broken backs of black laboring populations and continues to utilize black subordination to thrive well into the 21st century.

Undoubtedly the NGO’s biggest success was in casting a strobe light on the issues of reparations for the entire world to see. In opening up this Pandora’s box anti-racist activists illustrated the myriad ways that white supremacy, racial capitalism, and imperialism continue to marginalize the lives of billions on this planet. By dragging these issues to the center of an international debate, NGOs sought to shame, embarrass, and harass state power into acknowledging continued political oppression and fashion practical solutions. Rather then viewing slavery, colonialism, and international human rights violations as historical artifacts to be studied and debated over, the NGO Forum focused on the contemporary impact of these debilitating practices. The United States’ shameful refusal to discuss reparations speaks truth to the power of this international forum.

The issue of land reform, restoration, and restitution was poignantly played out during the massive protest march held by the Durban Social Forum on August 31. Over 20,000 strong trekked five miles to protest against landlessness in South Africa, the hegemony of free-market ideology, and the consolidation of world white supremacy. Although South Africa’s ANC government had been generally supportive of both the NGO/UN gatherings, this march revealed the increasingly arid political climate of the post-apartheid era. Over the course of this march and throughout my week in Durban I had the opportunity to listen to grassroots South Africans and their generally caustic assessment of the ANC regime. Moreover, hundreds of indigenous Africans were unable to participate in the NGO forum because of the prohibitive (800 South African Rand, the equivalent of $100 US) registration fees. This situation presents a quandary for African-American activists who were pivotal in abolishing the murderous apartheid regime.

As black Americans have come to recognize through bitter experience, black faces in higher places does not necessarily translate into freedom. In many ways, the crisis of nation-state building in Africa bears striking similarities to black political power in the Post-Civil Rights era. The ANC’s assumption of political power sans economic hegemony is a sad story that has been played out from Detroit, Michigan to Durban, South Africa. However, the march and the conference that was its backdrop represented a response and act of resistance that was global in its make-up and outlook. This of course begs the question: Was Durban the sight of a new radical anti-racist international movement for social, political and economic justice?

I had the opportunity to listen to grassroots South Africans and their generally caustic assessment of the ANC regime.

Though time and history will be the judge of these recent events, I would answer the question with a resounding yes. The NGO Forum provided a center-point for representatives of hundreds of labor, cultural, and grassroots organizations focusing on issues that ranged from incarceration and the death penalty to reparations and Pan-Africanism. As important as these individual agendas are, the thrust of the Forum revolved around articulating an alternative human rights agenda. Of course, such efforts at united front politics have faltered before. However, the fact that the NGO delegates lacked formal political power represented the conference’s greatest strength and weakness. The strength lay in the fact that the absence of formal ties to state power allowed for a lucid and radical perspective on world affairs. Yet this clear-eyed perspective revealed the domination of formal power in the form of political parties, corporate power, the World Bank, the IMF and, ironically enough, the United Nations. Mass marches, political mobilization, and conferences contribute to the global movement for social justice through education, networking and inspiration but, in and of themselves, are not enough.

With the increasing power of corporate interests coinciding with the decreasing effects of pressure groups and mass demonstrations, a new perspective on the relationship between protest, political power, and social change is needed now more then ever. On this score, the international forces arrayed in Durban caught the attention of mainstream leaders of all ideological and political affiliations. Even the NGO Forum was deemed important enough to warrant the presence of Cuban President Fidel Castro, UN Commissioner Mary Robinson, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Like a global March On Washington, the NGO Forum forced the hands of various leaders who were looking for a way to capitalize on the event through association or demonization, and sometimes both.

In contrast to the United Nations’ corporate seminar on diversity, the NGO Forum went beyond sensitivity training and multiculturalism to enact a project that was both descriptive and transformative. The former process involved defining the atrocities that have taken place during modernity and their enduring legacy. This is no small task, and if the NGO Program of Action and Working Draft are any indication, was eloquently handled. This description was controversial only to those who continue to enjoy the ill-gotten gains of slavery, apartheid, colonialism, and white supremacy. The brave new world of the 21st century has ensured that not all of these individuals and nations can be easily distinguished by black/white and east/west binaries. An increasing number of black and Third World descendants are happy to be the beneficiaries of global human rights movements that allow them a measure of prestige, political standing, and wealth. This phenomenon was exemplified by the seemingly incongruous sight of a small number of African nations who, wanting to appease their western masters, disavowed the reparations movement.

The latter process is what the Post-Durban International Movement must now actively engage in. This process must begin with the dissemination of first-hand knowledge from those of us who actually attended the WCAR. Not surprisingly, the amount of disinformation and outright distortions circulated in the American media have been legion. Conference attendees have a counter-narrative that should be shared with friends, families, colleagues, and especially poor communities of color. Young people, who were a welcome presence at the conference and convened their own Youth Conference in Durban August 26–27, should be told how their counterparts across the world are engaged in heroic struggles against racism and white supremacy. If the torch is to be passed, information—both historical and experiential—will be crucial in this endeavor. The warm personal and political relationships that were created, and sometimes renewed, during the NGO Forum represent international and humanistic possibilities that are unlimited. If our efforts in Durban are to prove successful we must ensure that history’s dark days have proceeded for the benefit of the bright nights of a not too distant future where humanity, far from being the reward of the few, will be extended the world over.

A native New Yorker, Peniel E. Joseph teaches at the University of Rhode Island and was a delegate under the auspices of the Center for the Advanced Study of African Society (South Africa) at the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum of the World Conference Against Racism.

Copyright (c) 2001 Peniel E. Joseph. All Rights Reserved.

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