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Racial Justice

Mass March in South Africa Against WCAR
by Lorenzo Komboa Ervin
Monday Sep 3rd, 2001 4:42 PM
A report from the mass march in South Africa.
by Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, special correspondent
Friday, August 31, 2001 DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA

On the opening day of the United Nations\' sponsored World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, almost 20,000 persons marched in an anti-government demonstration to protest the failure of the South African government\'s land reform policy for the poor, and its anticipated sale of the telecommunications industry, electrical utilities and other state-owned properties to private entrepreneurs. According to March organizers they also wanted to let the world know about \"this fraud of a conference for the corporate rich, while the poor suffer\", as one marcher put it on his picket sign. Myself and a small group of Americans, Asians, Europeans and others left the Non-Government Organization portion of the conference to march in solidarity.

This march was organized by the Durban Social Form, an umberella group of the Landless People\'s Movement, the National Land Committee, COSATU, the largest labor union in the country and numerous other social and community groups. The demonstration took place as part of a 2-day general strike called for by COSATU, which involved millions of South African workers, and crippled the transport, construction, and other industries, and snarled traffic all over the city of Durban and othere parts of South Africa.

Protesters carried picket signs calling President Thabo Mbeki \"a liar\", \"bully\", and warning that the government will face even more disruptions in the future, which would threaten the power of the African National Congress government and \"their rich friends backing them.\" Many described the conflict between COSATU, the DSF, and the ANC government as a \"class war\", which they saw as resulting one day into a \"coup of the poor\" to throw the rich and their ANC politicians out of power. All day long, the marchers angrily spoke about the \"treachery\" of the ANC, whom they said had \"sold out\" the poor of the country. Some even said that President Mbeki \"shamed\" his father, Govan Mbeki, who had died earlier that day, and whom was generally respected as a champion of the poor. Because of Mbeki and the ANC, they said, millions had neither land nor jobs, that over 3 million were homeless, 3.5 million unemployed, and millions of others without farms or land to sustain themselves.

Thousands of us assembled at the Natal Technical College, and marched all the way through Central Durban, picking up thousands of people along the way, until finally we came to the International Convention Center in the business district, where the main conference was being held. When the march ended, a rally was held, where speaker after speaker condemned the United States and Israel as \"evil twins\" sanctioning and carrying out genocide in the Middle East. President George W. Bush (\"that racist cowpoke\") and the USA was especially condemned for \"arrogantly thumbing their noses\" at the conference and attempting to dominate the conference agenda, when Bush called for the elimination of any discussions around reparations for slavery and any designation of Israel as a \"racist Zionist\" state.

Because Israel had chosen the week of the conference to attack a Palestinian city in the West Bank, there had been serious tensions between the Israeli \"peaceniks\" and Palestinian deloegates to the NGO conference. In fact, there were daily militant demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, which quickly became confrontations that had to be separated by the United Nations security police and Metro Durban officers assigned to the NGO conference (which preceded the meeting of heads of state). This also inflamed the Arab and Asian communities in Durban and other cities. Large numbers of muslim pro-Palestinian demonstrators poured into Durban for the protest on Friday, and played a major role in the march. In fact, there seemed to be more support from both the Africans and Asians at this demonstration than at any other I had seen since I had arrived in South Africa, even more than at the NGO conference itself.

The march included a number of urban homeless, rural landless (so called \"squatters\") and other desperately poor whom the ANC government had recently used police forces to drive out of shantyowns and settlements in the months preceeding the conference. (In video that was shown all over the world, the police brutally destroyed hamlets, personal property, and used excessive force, according to protesters). At a press conference earlier in the week, leaders of the landless movement, said that the ANC land policies were a failure, a \"tragedy\", and that the poor were being crushed. They said that landlessness itself was a symptom of racist and economic domination, a carryover from the racist apartheid regime, but was not being made a priority by the ANC ruling party. The demonstration was called to unite all their forces, and to show that they would not passively accept the government\'s anti-poor economic policies.

I have never been in a protest march like this one, though I had been to a lifetime of protests all over the world. Elders and the youth alike sprang into action, literally jumping and running many parts of the route, while screaming slogans at the top of their voices. The march itself lased almost 3 1/2 hours, over a course of about 5 miles. Thousands of ordinary working class and poor people came out of their houses, churches, stores, and other places to join in, and thousands of others stood on the sidewalks to spur us on. It literally stopped all action in Durban, a city of 3.2 million people. I know I will never forget this march, and felt that I was part of a great historical happening. Most felt that this was the start of a new movement, a poor peoples movement which would not be denied or ignored, and that the poor population would begin to speakout with a loud voice. They were insistent that neither ANC government bureaucrats, heads of state, or anybody else would speak for them anymore. They would not be victims in a country they had fought to create in the battle to overturn apartheid, and they forcefully said that they would take control of their own destiny.

The real story in South Africa is not what is happening at the World Conference Against Racism, whether with statesmen mildly \"debating\" over racism or lawyers at the NGO arguing over fine details of resolutions and political statements on reparations or United Nations procedure, the real story is what is happening in the streets with the poor and working class people of South African developing a new social revolutionary movement. That\'s where I always want to be: on the streets with the common people while they make revolution.