Breaking the silences

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“Today, none but the dim-witted and those deranged by fanaticism dare stand up and openly hoist the racist and sexist standards of the past,” South African President Thabo Mbeki told some 7,000 cheering and applauding delegates at the opening session of the NGO Forum of the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) on Tuesday.

For the thousands of NGO delegates gathered at the cricket stadium in Durban, South Africa, the designations “dim- witted” and “deranged by fanaticism” could not but evoke the images of two men who, even before the Forum started its proceedings, had won themselves the status of its arch enemies — George W Bush and Ariel Sharon.

A few days before the opening of the NGO Forum, Bush went out of his to way pressure the international community into dropping any reference to Israeli racist crimes against the Palestinians. “We will have no representative so long as they pick on Israel, as long as they continue to say Zionism is racism,” Bush insisted.

A couple of days later, having apparently been briefed that no one was seriously trying to include the formula “Zionism equals racism” in the WCAR’s Declaration and Programme of Action, the US president kept up the pressure. Now, the US would not send representatives to a conference that aimed “to isolate Israel, to denigrate it,” Bush told a news conference.

African Americans, who appeared to descend in droves on Durban, did not shy from expressing their disgust. “An embarrassment and a disgrace,” was among the more charitable descriptions of their president.

The NGO Forum opened to the announcement by the US State Department that Secretary of State Colin Powell would not be heading his country’s delegation to the one-week long governmental conference, due to open tomorrow. Neither was it clear, at the time of printing, whether even a low-status US delegation would be attending, so pervasive are American fears that the WCAR Draft Declaration might link Zionism to racism.

Meanwhile, Sharon has been dramatically escalating Israel’s repression of the Palestinian Intifada. On Tuesday NGO delegates arriving at the conference grounds were met with blurred pictures of Abu Ali Mustafa, hastily made into posters by Palestinian delegates the night before.

Whatever the efficacy of US/Israeli pressure and blackmail on the governmental conference, and the evidence is that it is substantial, it was patently obvious from day one at the NGO Forum that, here at least, the effect was quite the opposite.

The two agenda items most vehemently vetoed by Washington —

reparations for slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, and the condemnation of Israeli racist crimes — were clearly the two top items on the agenda of the NGO forum. Even India found out to its detriment that pressure to exclude certain items from the WCAR agenda seems to inevitably give such items priority with the WCAR’s NGO Forum. India had objected to the inclusion of caste-based discrimination on the agenda, arguing it was not a race issue. Yet at the Cricket Stadium in Durban, caste seemed to stand third only to Palestine and reparations for slavery in terms of priority.

One unifying thread running through the grievances being expressed in Durban is that of capitalist globalization. Banners, fliers, newsletters and t-shirts suggest that a great many delegates seem to think of the Forum as another stage in the anti-globalization battle.

From the Palestinian/Arab point of view, perhaps, South Africa is a venue made in heaven. The Forum’s local hosts, the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) is strongly pro-Palestinian, as are some of the most powerful political and trade union groups in the country. A joint statement issued ahead of the conference by SANGOCO, the South African Communist Party and COSATU had lashed out strongly at the US administration for its attempts to keep the Palestine and reparations issues off the WCAR agenda. “The struggle against Zionist racism and effectively addressing the issue of reparations is part of the struggle of poor and working people across the world against capitalist globalization and for social progress, freedom, justice and peace,” declared the joint statement.

Last July a SANGOCO delegation visited Palestinian territories at the invitation of local human rights NGOs. According to Raji Sourani, the head of the Jerusalem-based Law Centre, the comment “this is worse than what we faced under Apartheid,” was the most common reaction expressed by SANGOCO delegates as they witnessed first hand the effects of Israeli repression and strangulation in the occupied territories.

At the stadium, the preeminence of the Palestinian cause at the NGO forum was made patently clear even before SANGOCO President Mercia Andrews made her welcoming speech. As a Danish youth choir prepared to go on stage, a group of Egyptian NGO activists hoisted large banners including: “George W Bush: Palestinian blood is on your hands,” and “Racism = right of return to Jews and no right of return to Palestinians.” The stands broke out in resounding applause. The chant, “free Palestine”, started by Kufiya-clad Palestinian activists, was taken up by hundreds. The mood had been set.

Close to the end of her speech, Andrews expressed the defiant mood of the delegates, vowing that the NGO Forum will work “to break the silence, the many silences throughout the world, the silence about this conference. We are going to speak about the caste system, and we are going to speak about Palestine, and we are going to speak about poverty, and about globalization and we are going to speak about reparations,” said Andrews to resounding applause.

Whatever happens in the governmental conference between 31 August and 7 September, today at the cricket stadium of Durban Israel is an Apartheid state, the last bastion of open colonial and racial oppression in the world. Today, hundreds of South Africans will be bussed from around the country to join the NGO delegates in a march for Palestine and against capitalist globalization.

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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