27 July 2001

Africa: A Potential Pandora's Box


The conference on racism could turn from a good idea into a charade.

I wonder how nervous the South African government and the peace-loving people of Durban are about the forthcoming conference on racism, scheduled for the Banana City at the end of August.

In the past two years international conferences on just about everything have been dogged by a rolling pack of a thousand or so professional, hard-core international rioters who incite tens of thousands of humble local citizens to trash their own cities, protesting about almost anything -- from the compulsory spread of Coca-Cola to the withdrawal of pooper-scoopers from the streets of Paris.

The thing is that the people are up in arms again, and they will find all sorts of reasons to be revolting.

If an abstract idea like globalisation can bring out all this rude behaviour, think about what an emotional issue like race and racism could do.

The idea of a conference about racism originally seemed like a mighty good idea.

Initially, black people from Africa, Jamaica, the United States and so on thought the Durban conference was going to be all about them. Finally, the world was going to have to sit up and pay attention to the age-old trauma of being black.

Then everybody else started getting in on the act -- to such an extent that the conference has reached a level of white-heat debate six weeks before it even begins. The Arabs started talking about Zionism, so Israel threatened to boycott the conference. The Greeks started talking about the Turks, and the Turks brought up the issue of the Greeks. Africa and the African diaspora banged on about slavery and reparations, and the Western nations that were basically bankrolling the whole thing threatened to withdraw unless the issue of reparations was firmly excluded. Besides, they said, how can you talk about slavery when slavery is basically alive and kicking all over Africa, long after we've packed up and left you guys alone?

The preamble to the conference has rapidly become an unmanageable basket of sensitive counter-accusations.

The danger is that, as in premature ejaculation, the core issues intended for discussion will be spent before the summit gets off the ground, and there will be nothing left for the various factions to do but go rioting around the KwaZulu-Natal capital, tearing each other and the city of Durban apart. (And bear in mind that Durban itself already has its fair share of implacable racial complications.)

World Conference on Racism is only shorthand for the full title of the conference: The United Nations World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. (That little "related intolerance" phrase at the end alone opens up the potential for a Pandora's box of UN subcommittees, resolutions and declarations that will get us nowhere.)

With such a mouthful of issues to clobber in the short space of a week, and taking into account the UN's usual level of efficiency, aplomb and effectiveness, prospects for a triumphant outcome become increasingly remote. And yet the heat is still rising, and the level of debate becomes increasingly bizarre.

In his latest column, in a daily paper that I shall refrain from identifying for professional reasons (except to say it's named after one of those things you can see up in the sky on a clear night), Mathatha Tsedu, the SABC's new deputy CEO: news, opens up with the following statement:

"Africa is a very unfortunate continent where sharks of different hues come to forage for riches whenever it suits them. It is not a new phenomenon, and started with the invasion of the Arabs in the north who settled there and have now essentially colonised the north and turned it into an Arab island ..." He goes on to say that Europeans came not far behind, and thus Africa's woes began.

Now, there are certain indignant sentiments that we all used to articulate in our rock-throwing days at high school, but I think we used to get most of our historical and geographical facts pretty straight. If you're going to be angry about something, it should be something that is reasonably true. That way, there is something to argue about when the authorities finally come to talk to you to find a solution.

In Tsedu's case, we find a complete rewriting of history, as well as a rearranging of geography, which nobody in their right mind could sit down and make the basis of a discussion.

I have always thought that the people we call Arabs penetrated subtly and gradually into sub-Saharan Africa on missions of trade (yes, indeed, in slaves, but among other things as well) but also as evangelists for the Islamic cause, and as searchers for and bringers of knowledge. I have never thought of the Arab world as anything other than a part of the wondrous variety of the African continent.

And there's the rub. If we are searching for a deeper truth at the Durban conference, where do we draw the lines? At what point do the victims of racial discrimination themselves become the agents of "xenophobia and related intolerance"?

Tsedu's real target is Libya's Muammar Gaddafi -- a man who manifestly puts his money where his mouth is -- and his engagement in the newly formed African Union. His closing shot is to ask African leaders when they will finally come to their senses and treat Gaddafi and "the Arab north as colonised territory that must be liberated". Africa, he seems to be saying, has to be black up to the eyebrows before it is free.

And yet, while the North baulks at the idea of reparations, and the South starts to demand that Arabs be included in the concept of repaying old debts, Gaddafi is spending serious oil money in Africa. Tsedu objects to this as well. Do we really know what it is we want?

And so I just wonder how much more of this kind of weird stuff is going to emerge before and during the Durban conference, and add to the confusion that will turn an initially good idea into a charade.

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