NGOs at Durban Target Globalization

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA -- Many of the delegates attending the nongovernmental (NGO) forum of the World Conference Against Racism here in South Africa have been met with a big surprise. Most had been informed of the big controversy over including the treatment of the Palestinians by the state of Israel or the demand for black reparations on the agenda. Most had expected these to be the main arenas of contention and to dominate the dialogue.

What they did not expect was an NGO forum that would unfold as a continuation of an ever more articulate and ever more vocal anti-globalization movement. This grassroots upsurge was first expressed in Seattle two years ago at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO); it was further articulated at the World Bank demonstrations in Washington, DC and reached its culmination at the G-7 meetings in Genoa.

Durban, South Africa must now be added to that list of mass gatherings to challenge the transnational financial and political institutions that have snared the world's peoples into its unipolar, globalization net. But Durban represents at least two major differences.

Young whites and Europeans dominated the Seattle, Washington and Genoa protests. The NGO Forum, on the other hand, has attracted a global cross-generational activist core that is composed predominately of people of color from the Americas, from Africa and from Asia.

And while the U.S. and European protests concentrated on the economic institutions, Durban's unique contribution has been to place the fight against racism, xenophobia and other related intolerances at the center of its anti-globalization critique.

The NGO forum, of course, is not a gathering that was called in reaction to a get-together of the imperial elite and its financial and political institutions. The WCAR is a meeting that has been several years in the making, but its flavor and orientation has been definitively seasoned with the worldwide anti-globalization protests that preceded it.

The theme linking the WCAR to the anti-globalization movement was first signaled by Merisa Andrews, President of SANGOCO, the South African group responsible for organizing the forum. "We will talk about the Palestinians," she proclaimed in her opening address to the conference delegates. "We will talk about the blockade of Cuba!" To a widely cheering crowd, she stated that all the questions of the struggle against racism and discrimination will not be resolved unless they are placed in "the context of economic and social justice." Amid thunderous applause she concluded that the youth and the NGOs must insist that we "not except any strategy, or program, or policy that does not touch on the profound causes of all the inequalities: economic and social injustices."

That theme was reinforced in the opening remarks of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who insisted that legacy of slavery must be recognized: "I would like to believe," he proclaimed, "that a common outcome we all seek is a measurable commitment within countries and among all nations that practical steps will be taken and resources allocated, actually to eradicate the legacy of slavery, colonialism and racism that condemns billions across the globe to poverty and despair." He also made specific reference to the "process of globalization" which "rewards some handsomely," but made reference to "unbearable suffering in the midst of plenty" that can threaten social peace.

Many South African NGOs, however, felt that Mbeki's remarks were merely for show since his economic policies - particularly the policy of privatization - is capitulation to IMF and World Bank directives, which have deepened the racial divide in post apartheid South Africa between the white rich and the Black poor, although it has elevated a new Black elite at the fringe of the ruling centers of economic and political power.

That criticism was expressed in the daily street actions that have accompanied the NGO forum. Protest marches and work stay-aways have been organized by COSATU (Confgress of South African Trade Unions) to protest the government's antiworker policies, particularly its plans to privatize key public assets. NGOs have sponsored street protests and rallies in support of the Palestinian people, and for reparations. Militant mass marches have also unfolded protesting the status of those who remain landless six years after the defeat of apartheid. Tens of thousands of South Africans have been joined by NGO delegates in an impressive show of civil society strength. "We did not participate in the liberation struggle in order to sell what we have won to the highest bidder" one banner proclaimed." "No to Privatization" said another.

Nevertheless, some NGO delegates, particularly among the North American groups, feel uncomfortable with the linkage of racial justice demands and the critique of imperial globalization. The mainstream civil rights organizations like the Black Leadership Forum, for example, remain strictly wedded to a narrow racial perspective of demanding equal racial opportunity within the framework of the current economic and political exigencies of the U.S. global empire.

Humberto Brown, International Secretary of the Black Radical Congress, is an example of U.S.-based racial justice activists that challenge this narrow view. He asserts that race alone cannot guarantee solidarity. "You cannot be a black liberationist and be a sexist," he says. "Nor can you be homophobic or think your language is the only language." Most importantly, he continues, "You can't be a black liberationist and support corporatism." Speaking in the Africa and African descendents caucus, Brown received enthusiastic applause when he referred to globalization and said the caucus should demand that the World Conference Against Racism "come out with a document that condemns the modern form of exploitation."

On the other hand, the government gathering that began this week falls far short of the broad vision projected by most of the NGO delegates and these standards for the struggle against racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerances. The U.S. and other former colonial powers chose not to pick up the racial justice gauntlet and engage in the debate., but it is one that cannot be put off forever. Thus, many of the NGOs see this gathering as only the opening salvo in a face off between those who promote exploitative globalization schemes, which perpetuate racial and xenophobic discrimination and those with a vision of a democratic world of economic and social justice with racial equity at its core.

Frances M. Beal is national secretary of the Black Radical Congress and a political columnist for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. She can be contacted at fmbeal@igc.org.

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