In the large black township of Inanda, in Durban, South Africa, most people live in sloping tin shacks without any means of waste disposal. The lucky ones live in square cement homes with a water faucet outside. For the three million black people in the area, there isn’t a single local hospital. Inanda is where black people working in Durban were forced to live during apartheid. It is where, in 1903, Mahatma Gandhi started a printing press and newspaper. It is where, in 1985, government-incited violence razed most of the buildings. It is where, in 1994, Nelson Mandela voted in the country’s first democratic election. It is less than twenty minutes from Durban, the site of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism. In Gandhi’s rebuilt workshop, I dust off some of the dirt on the printing press wheel and notice small, engraved letters. The machine is stamped “Brooklyn, New York.”
It seems right, at an international conference against racism, to notice not how small but how interconnected the world is. Although there are key differences (not the least of which is that the conditions of black South Africans often mirror those in the pre-civil rights U.S.) I haven’t seen a single interracial couple in the 10 days I’ve been in Durban. Indians here are the buffer between the blacks and whites—the ones you see working in the shops, as secretaries, small business owners. The police supervisors are all white or Indian. The inspectors—the ones who do the dirty work—all black. Adjoa Aiyetoro, a lawyer with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, points out how the similarities show the continuing legacy of racism. “They say forget about the past and move on,” she says, “but institutionalized racism is continuing. You can’t rape a continent like Africa, imprison whole communities of young black women and men in the United States, keep people in poverty, and then tell them to move on.”
Representatives from over 153 nations attended both the non-governmental and official U.N. conference. Sundile Gcaba, a leadership trainer at a local technical college, asked me if the conference was all “talk and documents.” The official conference, yes. The U.N. originally intended to create two documents at the conference, a declaration against racism and a plan of action. Yet African, Asian, and South American heads of state were often drowned out by the U.S.’s requirements for participation (no talking about reparations, U.S. culpability anywhere in the world, or Israeli aggression in the occupied territories), its wavering on sending a high-level delegation, and finally, its total withdrawal from discussion.
But crucial work was done, mostly on the streets and in the small white tents where groups are meeting. Although the U.N. is the only official body where every country is given a voice—albeit an unequal one because of the exaggerated influence of the five members of the Security Council—connections are being made on the ground level. “Dalits,” the “untouchables” of India who often live segregated lives and have been killed for daring to touch something that an upper-caste person may touch, have begun working with landless people in South Africa. African descendants and Africans created a 10-point declaration of unity that includes cancellation of third world debt and recognition of the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. And the large numbers of young people present formed a global youth network to give support to and communicate with young activists worldwide. Protests against privatization in South Africa, against Israeli occupation, and against the U.S. lack of participation, have filled the streets almost everyday, and the mixture of colors and languages on the street promise a growing international solidarity. The message on the streets—chanted in Zulu, Arabic, English, and Spanish—was clear: those inside the conference halls weren’t listening to those most effected by the concrete realities of racism.