South Africa: Johannesburg Earth Summit

ANC government harassment and sabotage cannot stop 30,000 marching. On Saturday 31 August, anti-globalisation activists were joined by thousands of workers, the unemployed and landless, who marched from the poor township of Alexandra outside Johannesburg to the Earth Summit being held in the exclusive, rich suburb of Sandton.

Anti capitalist protests.

Weizmann Hamilton of the Democratic Socialist Movement in South Africa (DSM – the section of the CWI in South Africa) gives an eyewitness report, describing the march and the events surrounding it.

Johannesburg Earth Summit

"You could not get a more striking contrast between the conditions of Sandton and Alexandra township. Sandton is the richest urban conglomeration on the African continent whereas Alexandra is one of the most poverty-stricken townships in the country. Its conditions resemble the blitzed Palestinian refugee camps – with people piled on top of one another, mass unemployment, squalor, electricity cuts, water cuts, etc."

"The initial reaction of the African National Congress (ANC) government was to deny permission to demonstrate to the United Social movement (USM) which represented the anti-privatisation forum (which the DSM is affiliated to), the landless people’s movement as well as Via Campesina which is an international movement – ’the peasant way’ – and a host of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

"The government was clearly concerned that they would be embarrassed by a massive turnout and so they decided on two tactics. On the one hand, to organise their march together with the COSATU (trade union confederation) leadership on the same day, starting from the same township, Alexandra. On the other hand, the ANC government took the decision to initially deny permission to the USM demo.

"However, a week beforehand – when a number of anti-globalisation activists marched from Witts University to the main police station in Johannesburg, now known as Thabo Mbeki square – stun grenades were hurled at the demonstrators which included people like Naomi Klein (the US author of the international best selling anti-globalisation book, No Logo).

"This caused the government a great deal of embarrassment and led to divisions inside the ANC because the authorities were seen to be behaving just like the old apartheid regime. As a result, in the middle of the week the government relented and the ban on the demo was lifted.

President’s representative shouted down by protesters

 "There was about 10,000-12,000 people on the march, which given the government’s harassment and attempts to sabotage it, represents a huge success.

"Part of the government strategy was to insist on a long march route (between 12-15 kilometres) in the hope that sheer exhaustion, hunger and thirst would result in people dropping off. There were unprecedented levels of security with both the army and police deployed all along the route with stun grenades, machine guns trained on the demonstrators, armoured vehicles and riot police.

"There was also clear harassment from the state with the use of police helicopters that constantly circled the march. At the rally outside the Sandton convention centre they deliberately hovered above the stage drowning out the speeches.

"The government decided to send from the Office of the President, Essop Pahad (he was one of the three central committee members of the South African Communist Party recently voted off by the SACP congress) to receive the memorandum from the demonstration. But through the intervention of DSM members, including the leader of the Socialist Students’ Movement at Witts University, Pahad was not allowed to speak (the TV showed our comrade telling him to get off the stage! The Sunday Paper front-page showed a picture of Pahad with the headline "VOETSEK" which means "get away" – usually used when shooing away a dog!).

"In contrast, the initial radio reports of the government organised demo, at which Mbeki spoke, described the turnout of 3,000 people as ’a flop’. Opportunistically and hypocritically, Mbeki (whose ANC government is promoting capitalist policies of privatisations and cutbacks which are increasing poverty) denounced the ’global Apartheid’ between rich and poor’.

"What struck me was all along the march was the intense hatred which exists for Mbeki in particular.

"The evening before the march, there was a pro-Palestinian rights rally at Jo’burg city hall, attended by 1,000 people. Speakers from the Socialist Students in KwaZulu Natal spoke and captivated the audience. People gave them a standing ovation as they hoisted their SSM banner."

Weizemann Hamilton, Johannesburg, 2 September 2002.

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September 2002