Discrimination Goes on Trial: The Stage Is Set for a Potentially Explosive UN Conference on Racism in Durban. (Cover Story/Slavery)

By Commey, Pusch | New African, July-August 2001 | Go to article overview

Discrimination Goes on Trial: The Stage Is Set for a Potentially Explosive UN Conference on Racism in Durban. (Cover Story/Slavery)


Commey, Pusch, New African


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. Iris 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 [pound sterling]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". …

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