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"Durban: More Than Its Media Coverage,"

by Makani Themba January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

I don't think the UN Conference could ever simply be "The Conference" after the events of September 11th. How could we know how the world would change in just one day after the Conference officially closed?

Thinking back, I left Durban feeling good about the new networks and understanding that were forged among progressive NGOs worldwide. My twelve days in Durban showed me that, at the core, there’s a lot of unity among us NGOs.

It sure didn’t start out that way. We all had some stretching to do. Two years ago, few of us knew the oppression facing the 250 million Dalits in India. We never heard of the Bhutanese or contemporary slavery in Niger. Many of our colleagues came into this process unsure about reparations for slavery and colonialism, and a significant number had little clue about present-day racism in the US. By the time the final plenary session closed at nearly 1 am on the last day of the NGO Forum, most of these issues were not only understood – they received unanimous support.

If there was ever a moment that I knew NGOs had really forged some common ground, it was during the closing ceremony. We were all waiting for Fidel. After two days of rumors about his possible appearance at the forum, delegates packed the Cricket Stadium as they awaited the beloved Cuban leader. For nearly half an hour before his arrival, the group sang liberation songs, rocked political chants and waved makeshift Cuban flags. His Excellency was easily the indisputable star of the proceedings.

The excitement was so palpable that the crowd literally gasped in unison when Fidel finally made it to the stage. The space reserved up front for the Cuban delegation filled up instead with supporters worldwide. Ugandans, Chinese, Mexicanos, Samoans were among the folk who simply brushed past the usher charged with controlling admittance to the area and said in their best English, “I am Cuban.” One Ugandan woman said ceremoniously, “We are all Cuban.”

Most of us agreed that there are central issues of injustice – poverty, racism, sexism, marginalization among them; that globalization has meant a great deal of escalation of these and other challenges; and that we must take on both the market and our governments if we hope to make a difference.

Durban also reinforced my disappointment in mainstream news media. As usual, they were more interested in covering the same old hopelessness than new stories of hope. The debate related to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people dominated coverage. A black woman was among the network reporters refusing to attend a press conference less than 20 feet away on reparations, in order to film yet another hour of verbal conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The press also mostly ignored the quiet group of rabbis that protested alongside Palestinians in their effort to forge new definitions of Zionism. Perhaps most importantly, they missed the truth – and given the fact that mainstream media outlets conducted few interviews with attendees, it didn’t seem as if the truth really mattered to them all that much. It all made me even more grateful for the ethnic and independent media that worked tirelessly to tell the many stories of the gathering.

And there were many stories. Too many to tell in one sitting, to be sure. There was the one about how the US dominated the conference in terms of attendees but found collaboration as a delegation nearly impossible. The process exposed our lack of relationships with each other, and there was no hiding it. Yet, the shock was therapeutic. Before September 11th, there was even hope that groups were intent on change, repair, on reaching out to one another. We were all abuzz with how we'd "bring Durban home."

Unfortunately, far more tragic and unsavory events have hit home instead. And it is these events that rightly pull our political attention. Yet, so much of what has unfolded from September 11th is rooted in the debates and tensions that framed Durban. The issues that occupy the world stage now are the same issues the United States boycotted in South Africa.

It's hard not to wonder how things might have been different if our government chose to lead a process for peace rather than choosing to simply walk away.

Makani Themba is director of a new Applied Research Ctr. Project, The Transnational Racial Justice Initiative (145 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011, 540/857-3088), which is attempting to leverage the upcoming UN World Conf. on Racism, Xenophobia & Other Forms of Intolerance to build capacity among US organizers to address structural racism. Her latest book is Making Policy, Making Change: How Communities Are Taking Law Into Their Own Hands (Chardon Press, 1999).


Makani Themba ( writes and works on issues of race, media and policy. Her latest book is Making Policy, Making Changes (Chardon Press).


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