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South Africa Prepares for Racism Conference - 2001-08-08

The world will be watching later this month as South Africa, seven years after the death of apartheid, hosts an international conference on racism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance. As delegates in Geneva try to agree on an agenda for the conference, South African officials are still working out some of the less glamorous details such as whether there will be enough hotel rooms for all the dignitaries who want to attend.

Where will they put everyone? It has become a major problem for the planners of the World Conference Against Racism. Between 20 and 30 heads of state are expected to attend, plus another 60 to 70 foreign ministers. Some countries are also sending other high-level delegates, such as their ministers of education or labor.

South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad says many of those government ministers are demanding luxury hotel suites, but there simply are not enough to go around. "We do not have enough suites in Durban, unfortunately, and we have gone right out of Durban now," he said. "We have had to take all hotel accommodation up to 40-50 kilometers away. Durban has got an excellent conference center, but the hotel accommodation was mainly changed for South African tourism, so there are very few suites. One of the problems is going to be many delegations who are raising the question that if each of the ministers does not have a suite, they would have to consider not coming as ministers. These are all threats they keep making. We hope that we can convince them that for two-days, they can stay in a nice room."

The presence of so many heads of state and senior government officials is also presenting a challenge to South African security officials. Authorities have set up a special committee to prepare. Half a dozen different security agencies including the national and Durban police, the military and the intelligence service are collaborating to ensure that the conference goes off without a hitch.

South African police spokeswoman Charmaine Muller says they are ready. "I must say at this point our intelligence for this event looks good, there is nothing to be worried about," she said.

In addition to a heated debate within the conference walls, South African authorities are expecting a hot time on the streets of Durban. Tens-of-thousands of protesters are expected to show up for the summit, to demonstrate against a variety of issues only some of them related to racism.

Ms. Muller says anyone who wants to protest will have to register with local authorities. Police will arrest unregistered protesters and keep them out of the conference area. She insists this is not being done to silence anyone. "The reason for this is to control them. To help them to get their message through, and not to hinder them," she said. "Definitely, it is only to make it orderly and to assist them to get their message through. And also to have them safe and secure."

Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad says South Africa does not intend to squash protests in Durban. He says the government agrees with many of the demonstrators' viewpoints. At the very least, he says, South Africa supports their right to express themselves.

But he is concerned about the violence that has accompanied mass protests at other international meetings during the past year. "There are many demonstrations going to take place. As you know, these days any international conference attracts demonstrations," said Mr. Pahad. "Our own view is that many of the issues that the demonstrators in Genoa, in Seattle, in Sweden have been demonstrating about are very legitimate issues. Our only criticism is the violent element of it. Similarly in Durban we are going to have many demonstrations, not only related to the racism conference, but people demonstrating on the land issue in South Africa, etc. We expect that we are going to be able to ensure that these demonstrations are peaceful and the people's reflection is quite taken into account, whatever the issue that they are going to raise."

The police spokeswoman, Ms. Muller, says security officials have studied the earlier events and used them to form a plan for handling the racism conference. She is confident that there will be enough security forces on hand and that they will be trained well enough to do the job right.