South Africa, at any rate, holds many lessons for anti-racist campaigners. Explicitly, and in a politically self- conscious way, colour for South Africans was defined in a radical new way with the birth of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) which followed the Soweto uprising of June 1976. The BCM in South Africa was spearheaded by student activists and youth organisations under the leadership of the charismatic activist, the late Steve Biko. For Biko, anyone who was not the white oppressor, whatever their colour — brown, Asian, or mixed race — was “black”. For a decade the movement held an entire generation of anti- apartheid activists spellbound.
In today’s post- apartheid South Africa, crime, homelessness, HIV/AIDS and rampant unemployment are far more worrying than racism per se, according to a recent poll. Even more worrying than racism, the polls say, is the vicious black-on-black violence, xenophobia towards the growing number of immigrants from other African countries, and the uncontrollable growth of crime, which goes hand in hand with fierce competition for scarce jobs and meagre resources.
But racism is not dead. In contemporary South Africa, it is alive and kicking, literally, as illustrated by a recent assault on a white South African woman who owns a butchers shop in the town of George, Western Cape. Wanda Stofburg’s white neighbours beat her unconscious and carved the letter “K” (for Kaffir) into her chest with a kitchen knife. Her “crime?” Serving black customers in her shop.
Internationally, the legacy of slavery and colonialism continues to thrive, defining the economic and political relations between countries and continents. Rich Western powers built much of their wealth on the brutal conquest and subjugation of Third World peoples; the enslavement of Africans; the savage and systematic extermination of indigenous peoples; and the ruthless exploitation of the colonised world’s resources.
Today the West still imposes its version of history. Western powers have always forced the political agendas which serve their economic interests down the throats of the rest of the world. A recent example is typical. Before Durban, Washington, behind closed doors, forced African nations to retract their demands for financial reparations for slavery and colonialism. Instead, they had to accept a insipid version of their original hopes and officially declare that they were happy to beg the wealthy nations of the world to support the continent’s recovery, through the so-called New African Initiative (NAI) for African continental development. As then, so now: supplicants at the boots of Western power.
In the past, things were easier. The Cold War allowed African countries to play one superpower against another. An African country could cosy up to the USSR; the West would counter with heavy doses of paternalism and manipulation. Aid, albeit political in intent, flowed generously. But things have changed in the post-Cold War era. Nowadays cravenness before Western power seems the only solution.
But if governments are forced to bow, what of the people? There is clear water now between the positions of African governments and representatives of African civil society. At previous preparatory meetings of African, African- American and Caribbean governments and civil society representatives, civil society participants resolved to demand justice for the descendants of slaves and colonised peoples. Slavery and colonialism were identified as crimes against humanity. Moreover, Western governments were held responsible for their predecessors’ past atrocities and apologies were asked for. And more importantly, financial reparations were demanded to compensate continental and Diaspora Africans.
And the African civil society delegates are not without allies. African- American representatives at Durban are just as angry as their African counterparts at their treatment by the West. Indeed, the entire concept of “black” first found political expression with African- Americans, during their own struggle against racism, segregation and discrimination.
Institutionalised racism left deep wounds in the US. While slavery was abolished in 1867, its legacy of economic and social wickedness still festers. Nor is colonialism remote for African- Americans. African-Americans were also subjected to a peculiar type of colonialism: North American and internal. Classic books, like Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power (1967); Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969); and Robert Blauner’s Racial Oppression (1972) all elaborated on that theme. There is still growing inequality in the US in the distribution of wealth and power; often racist in subtext and in fact. In America, blacks fare far less well than whites. And it is this context that some African- American delegates find the official posture of Africans at the WCAR puzzling. African countries are obviously not prepared to fight, they marvel.
Yet the moral urgency even African- Americans can bring is now weaker than it was. Black Power was a force that germinated in the US. There it blossomed: and there it finally wilted, too. Today, the entire movement has been largely co-opted and reduced to mere pressed flowers; all that remains is the faintest whiff of its original fierce tang.
One thing, at least, is that the WCAR brings again the struggle against racism into the limelight, and puts it in its proper economic and political context. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan explained the rationale behind WCAR. “We want to reinvigorate the fight against intolerance with legal measures, with education, with economic and social development. And we want to do so well before grievances and prejudice spiral out of control and people find themselves on the battlefield, in conflicts they neither want nor can afford,” he said. Annan warned too against inflammatory rhetoric: “Hostile rhetoric is all too often a precursor to hostile acts,” he said.
Fine words; but many are cynical. Although the aim of WCAR is to enlist international support in the fight against racism, the Third World, and, in particular, African non-governmental delegates at the WCAR, see a cynical dynamic in the US refusal to send the high profile, and black US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to represent the world’s superpower in Durban. It was all too predictable that Powell, an anti-hero to African-Americans, cited criticism of Zionism and slavery as the main reasons for his decision to boycott WCAR.
But Washington cannot for ever blackmail the rest of the world to accept its own agenda. UN Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson spoke of a “shared commitment to tackling intolerance and bias.” Interestingly the gap between the US and its European allies on social issues has lately widened. German Minister of Development Cooperation Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, on a three-day visit to South Africa, warned that rich countries bore a responsibility to the poor world’s development. “Accepting the responsibility of colonialism for many of the structural problems which exist in developing countries was sheer normality,” she said. Although racism still lives, incarnate now in US dismissal of its culpability for the poor world’s troubles, the indignation of African-Americans, the fury of African civil society and Europe’s willingness to plead guilty suggest that hope may not have died either.