In South Africa, thousands of protesters have marched on U.S. embassies and consulates around the country. They are angry that the United States is threatening to boycott a U.N. racism conference that South Africa is scheduled to host in a few weeks. But it is now looking more likely that a U.S. delegation will go to Durban after all.
Traffic came to a standstill outside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, as more than a 1,000 people blocked the street. They chanted and sang in protest against a U.S. threat to boycott the World Conference on Racism to be held in Durban next month.
Similar scenes were found outside U.S. consulates in Cape Down and Durban. The protest marches were sponsored by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, and the South African Communist Party. It was a dual issue protest. The marchers were also objecting to the South African government's plans to privatize state-owned industries. But the signs they held aloft made their sentiments clear. They were angry that the United States wants to keep two controversial issues off the agenda, reparations for slavery, and equating Zionism with racism.
One trade unionist wore a sign on his chest reading: "United States stop supporting racism." "You must remember that Americans, they are trying to control the whole country, now the whole world," he said. "But we are fighting that America cannot control everybody in the world."
The protesters felt the U.S. government is holding the conference hostage, in order to avoid discussing issues it feels uncomfortable with. But earlier in the day, the director-general of the South African Department of Foreign Affairs told reporters, it is looking increasingly likely that the United States will send a delegation to the conference.
Sipho Pityana said delegates meeting in Geneva have just about worked out a compromise that will keep everybody, including the United States, at the table. "I do not want to create an impression that we have an agreement on any of those issues, but I think that we are many kilometers away from where we were in June, when we deliberated on those issues," Mr. Pityana said. "The gap has been narrowed considerably, but they will be concluded in Durban."
Although, an outsider might expect the slavery reparations issue to be more important to African nations, the protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria were actually more outspoken about Zionism. They were particularly vocal in their support of the Palestinians. Many black South Africans who were once anti-apartheid activists, see the Palestinians as victims of oppression, and, therefore, kindred spirits.
Mr. Pityana said the issue of slavery reparations will almost certainly be on the agenda in Durban. But the question of whether Zionism equals racism will not. However, he says, the conference is likely to include a discussion of recent unrest in the Middle East. "In respect of 'Zionism is racism,' there was general agreement that this matter was discussed conclusively in 1991 by the United Nations and that no useful purpose will be served in re-opening it at this conference," said Mr. Pityana. "But there is a broad acceptance that you cannot have a conference like this, with the developments that are taking place in the Middle East, without pronouncing on those developments."
Mr. Pityana says the issue now is not whether to talk about the events in the Middle East, but what to say about them. The delegates are still trying to work that out. He says South Africa is sponsoring a discussion on the issue that is likely to continue until the Durban conference begins on August 31.
Brazil is facilitating a similar discussion on reparations for slavery.
Photos by Challiss McDonough.