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A griot’s tale: Revisiting Durban conference against racism

By Adekeye Adebajo
03 August 2021   |   3:01 am
This August marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance which took place in South Africa

Secretary-General Kofi Annan (right at podium) speaking at the opening of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban. Photo/AFP

Africa’s griots are fabled repositories of their people’s history.

This August marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance which took place in South Africa’s port city of Durban from 31 August to 8 September 2001.

The summit was attended by 2,300 delegates from 163 countries, as well as 4,000 civil society activists and 1,100 journalists. The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action were its key outcomes.
Prophet of the African Renaissance
The meeting was hosted by the South African president Thabo Mbeki, the Prophet of the African Renaissance. More than any other contemporary African leader, Mbeki had a deep understanding of, and engagement with, the Black World. As a young student, he had imbibed the activism of Martin Luther King Jr., the scholarship of Frantz Fanon, and the poetry of Langston Hughes. As president, he preached black solidarity at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta; pushed for the full integration of Afro-Brazilians into society in Bahia; praised Cuba’s huge contributions to liberating Southern Africa in Havana, and was the only African leader personally to attend the bicentennial of the Haitian revolution in 2004.
In a stirring opening speech at Durban in 2001, Mbeki championed cultural equality and unequivocally condemned racism, noting: “We meet here because we are determined to ensure that nobody anywhere should be subjected to the insult and offence of being despised by another or others because of his or her race, colour, nationality or origin….there are many in our common world who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white. Their cultures and traditions are despised as savage and primitive and their identities denied.” He then went on to demonstrate diasporic solidarity in musical tones: “To those who have to bear the pain of this real world, it seems the blues singers were right when they decried the world in which it was said – if you’re white you’re alright; if you are brown, stick around; if you are black, oh brother! Get back, get back, get back!”

Poet of the Caribbean Riposte
But, despite these stinging words, eminent Barbadian historian, Hilary Beckles, who was in Durban as part of civil society, later criticised Mbeki and other African leaders like Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, for having betrayed the continent and the diaspora by allowing Western governments to exclude strong clauses in the final conference resolution condemning slavery and colonialism, and thus failing to hold these countries accountable for crimes against humanity. Beckles further accused these “neo-colonial” African leaders of damaging Pan-African solidarity by expunging the issue of reparations from the conference agenda. As he noted: “Africa broke with its own diaspora, joined with the former enslavers and colonisers…the diaspora [was] now cast in the diplomatic dungeon as disruptors of the Durban peace.”
However, these poetic lamentations ignore the realities of inter-governmental summitry in which consensus is needed to achieve an outcome document. African leaders reasoned that half a loaf was better than none and that the declaration was what the political traffic could bear. They pragmatically decided to live to fight another day. These were nine days of arduous negotiations in which the withdrawal of the American and Israeli delegations – as a result of perceived anti-Israel bias – nearly scuttled the whole process. Japan and India were also vigorously resisting any references to discriminatory caste systems.
The Delusions of Durban
An important achievement in Durban was to declare slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity. The four and a half century Transatlantic slave trade – led by European slaving nations – which resulted in 12-15 million Africans being transported as chattel to the Caribbean and the Americas was declared an “appalling tragedy” of “abhorrent barbarism” that “should always have been” a crime against humanity. Durban also argued that colonialism had resulted in racism and suffering that has endured into the contemporary age.
Many of the summit’s recommendations were, however, quixotic, with little chance of implementation due to the international economic system of “global apartheid” that keeps much of the Third World poor. National action plans and stronger legislation were advocated. Woolly plans were announced to improve “the administration of justice” and to reinforce “national institutions to combat racial discrimination.” The summit called nebulously for “protection of all human rights,” and implored governments to take steps to eliminate “all forms of racism,” and to ensure equality in health, employment, and the environment. More concrete were Durban’s calls for education, research, and awareness-raising initiatives to tackle racism, including sensible calls for religious groups to help fight the scourge.
The Daredevils of Durban
But, Durban was, in some ways, also subversive. Racism was identified as among the root causes of armed conflicts. The Declaration pushed for the inclusion of the history and contributions of Africans in educational curricula, as well as fully integrating into public services, and increasing social services to, “communities of primarily African descent”: issues of particular sensitivity to Brazil and the United States.

Durban also noted disapprovingly that colonial-era theories of racial superiority were still prevalent and easily spread through social media, thus anticipating Donald Trump’s nativist, hate-spewing presidency by 15 years. Furthermore, Durban was bold in bemoaning the plight of Palestinians, calling for their right to self-determination and an independent state. Conferees were not shy in identifying vulnerable groups such as Africans, Asians, indigenous people, migrants, refugees, and Roma, who are often abused by powerful governments.

The Declaration further condemned the ubiquitous negative stereotyping of vulnerable groups in parts of the global media, as well as the resurgence of neo-Fascist ideologies, anticipating the continued rise of Islamophobic European political parties demonising black and brown migrants.

Black Lives Matter
While Durban did not change the world, it helped lay the foundation and provided a rallying point for contemporary racial struggles led by youthful Black Lives Matter activists and other civic movements. These groups have recently mobilized anti-racism protestors around the globe more effectively than at any time in living memory. Oppressive statues have been toppled. The German government recently announced reparations for a century-old genocide in Namibia. Harvard, Yale, and Oxford have established programmes of restitution. Democrats in the US Congress now support the cause of reparations: an issue that will appropriately form the focus of the UN General Assembly debate on the post-Durban conference in September 2021. This griot’s tale may yet have a happy ending.

Across Africa, technology-wielding youths have challenged, and in some cases, toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Sudan, and Nigeria. Durban rightly called for the youth – 60% of Africa’s population – to be centrally involved in the implementation of its programme of action, since the future belongs to them.

South Africa has itself been criticized for sporadic bouts of xenophobic violence against black African migrants. However, its glorious anti-apartheid struggle – which was driven by Soweto’s youthful revolutionaries and inspired the Durban conference – could teach the world the true meaning of what the country’s Founding Father, Nelson Mandela, dubbed Ubuntu: the gift of discovering our shared humanity.
Professor Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.