Anti-globalization protesters have descended on almost every international conference or summit that has been held over the past year. Now, the racism conference under way in South Africa is attracting its own share of demonstrators. Most of the protesters are South Africans. But the issues are international.
Security officials say roughly 18,000 protesters marched Friday through downtown Durban to the conference venue. A large part of the group consisted of South African Muslims, who turned out to voice their anger at Israel and show support for the Palestinians. Abdurahman Brennan traveled for more than a day to get to Durban from Cape Town. "We are fighting for the liberation of Palestine, because our Muslims, our brothers and our sisters are oppressed in Israel," he said. "And we want to liberate Palestine today. We want to let the world know that we are fighting for the liberation of Palestine."
Unlike earlier conferences in Genoa and Seattle, most of the demonstrators had a message not for the United Nations officials and foreign dignitaries inside, but for South African President Thabo Mbeki.
The largest group came to protest South Africa's plans to privatize state-owned industries. This followed a two-day national strike over the same issue. But at times the marchers seemed to be protesting just for the sake of protesting. One woman admitted to VOA that she did not even know what she was demonstrating for.
Another marcher, Sello Marumo, was selling anti-capitalist pamphlets for about 50 cents each. He summed up the protesters' mixed bag of issues. "We will not allow the leaders of the whole world to meet without challenge," he said. "They must stop privatization, capitalism, blah blah blah."
Some of the protesters were there for a very specific reason. University student Sethelembi Nyati wants South Africa to treat all 11 official languages equally. "Because here in South Africa the most language they use is English," she siad. "So we do not want to be oppressed by this English."
Other groups were there to demand land for the landless. And some even carried signs calling for an end to racism - a goal shared by delegates at the conference inside.
Not all of the marchers were local. Some represented international organizations that are in Durban for the racism conference. New York City resident Ramona Ortega heads the Urban Justice Center's Human Rights Project. She says disadvantaged people around the world are dealing with very similar issues. "What we have seen throughout the conference is that there are actually a lot of global things that are similar," she said. "Whether we're in the United States and perhaps are affected a little bit differently... I mean, affordable housing, a living wage, all these things are the same kinds of things, just in a different context. What we're finding are some real similarities in terms of the problems that are affecting all of us, especially globalization."
A brief scuffle broke out between police and protesters as the some members of the crowd tried to get past a strict security cordon around the conference center. But otherwise, Friday's march was generally peaceful. The crowd dispersed quietly as a gentle rain started to fall.
Security officials say other protests are scheduled just about every day of the conference, on issues ranging from gay and lesbian rights to the civil war in Sri Lanka.