DURBAN — On the opening day of the United Nations-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), 20,000 people marched to protest the failure of the South African government's land reform policy for the poor, its privatisation program and in solidarity with the people of Palestine.
The August 31 march was organised by the Durban Social Forum, an umbrella group that includes the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, which is fighting electricity cut-offs, the Concerned Citizens Forum (which has militantly fought evictions and water cut-offs in Durban), the Landless People's Movement, Jubilee 2000 (which demands the cancellation of Third World debt), the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Treatment Action Campaign (which is campaigning for government provision of anti-AIDS drugs), the Alternative Information and Development Centre (which campaigns for cancellation of the apartheid debt), as well as the Palestine Solidarity Committee.
Protesters carried placards calling South African President Thabo Mbeki a "liar" and a "bully". Marchers angrily spoke about the "treachery" of the African National Congress (ANC) government, which they said had "sold out" the poor of the country.
Some even said that President Mbeki had "shamed" his father, Govan Mbeki, who died earlier that day. Mbeki senior was respected as a champion of the poor. Because of Mbeki junior and the ANC, demonstrators said, millions had neither land nor jobs, more than three million were homeless and three and a half million were unemployed.
The march also involved thousands of urban homeless and rural landless people (so-called "squatters") and other desperately poor people, against whom the ANC government has recently used police and private security goons to drive them off vacant land and destroy their shacks.
Thousands assembled at the Natal Technical College and then marched through central Durban. Old and young toyi-toyed for much of the eight-kilometre route, shouting militant slogans. The march took more than three hours to pass.
Thousands of ordinary working-class and poor people came out of houses, churches and shops and joined in. Thousands of others spurred the marchers from the footpaths. Durban was brought to a standstill.
The march ended outside the glitzy International Convention Centre and Hilton Hotel, where the UN conference was being held. At the rally, speaker after speaker condemned the United States and Israel for sanctioning and carrying out genocide in Palestine.
US President George W. Bush ("that racist cowpoke") and the US government were especially condemned for attempting to dictate the conference agenda by demanding the elimination of any mention of reparations for slavery and the designation of Israel as a racist state.
The US and Israeli delegations finally walked out of the conference on September 3.
Because Israel had chosen the week of the conference to attack a Palestinian city in the West Bank, there had been serious tensions between Israeli "peaceniks" and Palestinian delegates at the associated non-government organisation conference that preceded the main WCAR gathering. There were daily demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, which quickly became confrontations that had to be separated by the United Nations security and Metro Durban police officers assigned to the NGO conference.
Large numbers of Muslim and pro-Palestinian South Africans poured into Durban to join the August 31 march and rally.
It was not lost on the radical organisers of the Durban Social Forum that the march was the largest mobilisation organised by the non-South African Communist Party left since 1994.
As one leader of the landless people's movement noted, the significance of August 31 was that the left outside the ANC alliance is "beginning to connect with our people. The contest can no longer be one-sided. We have shown some strength."
The real story was not what was happening at the WCAR, where politicians were mildly "debating" racism and lawyers were arguing over fine details of resolutions, statements and UN procedure. The real story was in the streets.
[Compiled from reports posted at <http://southafrica.indymedia.org>.]