South Africa: Powell’s humiliation closes Earth Summit Fiasco

The last day of the Earth Summit completed the humiliation of the ANC government in what it had hoped would be its finest hour. ‘Civil society’ delegates walked out in disgust, Colin Powell was shouted down (when he attacked Zimbabwean president Mugabe), and despite the arrests of activists for breaching security at the Keoberg Nuclear Power station last week Green Peace staged another invasion of oil company facilities. These were all an expression of the disgust at the toadying up to big business by governments that led to commitments without timeframes, stripping them of any real meaning. But the inspiration for the last day of protests was provided by the protest march on 31 August. The Johannesburg Earth Summit was a public relations set back for the ANC government and South African President Mbeki, in particular. For the third time in just over a year and the second time in a month, a major international event, so crucial to the cultivation of Mbeki’s image as an international statesmen of note, has been "tarnished" by protests, demonstrations and strikes.

Last year’s World Conference against Racism was overshadowed, at least at home, by two-day anti-privatisation general strike called by Cosatu (the South African trade union federation — the first of that length since the ANC came to power in 1994 — the political after-shocks of which have not yet stilled.

In July this year, the launch of the African Union and Mbeki’s election as its first president, were spoiled by a three-week municipal strike – the longest single strike again since 1994 — which laid bare the growing class polarisation and provoked a bitter attack on the workers by Mbeki.

Thus as the Earth Summit (also known as the WSSD), the largest gathering in UN history and thus democratic SA’s most ambitious hosting exercise, the word from the police, and from the presidency, was that they would prove to the world the country’s readiness to deal with unruly protestors. Anti-globalisation protestors were demonised as a travelling band of hooligans going from country to country to throw stones.

Police water canons and rubber bullets

The Mbeki regime’s initial inclination was to obey its latent authoritarian instincts. Permission for the march was denied and the National Intelligence Agency visited the offices of the Anti-Privatisation Forum to interrogate the leadership.

However the trigger-happy behaviour of the public order police wrecked the strategy. The brutal dispersal of a small march of anti-globalisation activists, including Naomi Klein, the well-known author, who were proceeding from Wits University to the notorious police station and former apartheid torture centre, to demand the release of Landless People’s Movement (LPM) and Soldier’s Forum activists, embarrassed the government severely.

Under the pretext that permission had not been sought for the march, the public order police used stun grenades without warning. The LPM activists were arrested after refusing to leave the area in front of the Premier’ Office until former Cosatu general secretary and now Gauteng Province premier, Sam Shilowa, came personally to receive the memorandum (protest petition). One LPM activist is reported to have suffered a miscarriage during the conflict.

The Soldier’s Forum, made up of former ANC and PAC (Pan African Congress) military wings, and SADF (South African Defence Forces) soldiers demobilised without grants, were arrested en masse after boarding a train they were taking to Cape Town to raise their demands. Reports emerged that they had been tear gassed and assaulted in prison.

The obvious similarity between the actions of the police and the former apartheid regime embarrassed the government internationally, leading to strains within the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party – SACP) and protests by Cosatu.

Despite the initial arrogance of newly appointed Minister of Safety and Security, SACP national chairperson Charles Nqakula who argued that he did not believe the use of stun grenades constituted violence, the government’s strategy changed from repression to duplicity.

The government’s strategy changed from repression to duplicity. The government would recognise the legitimacy of protests and lift the ban on the march but attempt to undermine it. In fact, the ANC, as part of the Tripartite Alliance, would itself be part of the World Global Forum march protesting against global apartheid!

The Social Movement Indaba (SMI) was thwarted in its attempts to book the stadium in Alexandra Township from where the march was originally supposed to have proceeded to the Sandton Convention Centre. The Social Movement Indaba is an umbrella for a number of NGOs, as well as the Anti-Privatisation Forum. The Forum recently rebelled against the Cosatu leadership’s blatant takeover of the ‘Civil Society’ representation at the WSSD summit).

A lengthy route was allocated to the SMI clearly aimed at exhausting the marchers. The World Social Forum rally at the Alexandra stadium would start at the same time as the SMI march and with Mbeki himself due to speak there it was hoped that that the world’s media would ignore the SMI march.

But the real attitude of the government was on public display through the heavy police and army presence all along the route. Every intersection throughout Alexandra was closed off with hundreds of police in riot gear.

Armoured vehicles with machine guns positioned on turrets trained on the demonstrators and soldiers in army fatigues sent the marchers off from the departure point. Three helicopters circled above the march right to the rally point behind the heavily fortified Convention Centre. They deliberately hovered above the stage to drown out the speakers.

The SMI also experienced its own internal difficulties. Tensions, mainly between the APF and the Landless People’s Movement, threatened to scupper plans for a joint march. This would have been a major coup for Mbeki, as it would almost certainly have halved the size of the SMI march. Eventually an agreement was made. Following this wrestling match the SMI became the Social Movements’ United. The main forces of the SMU in the end were supplied by the LPM, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, who had booked a train and several busses to bring supporters from Cape Town, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Katlhehong Concerned Residents and smaller contingents from various townships. At least half of the demonstrators wore free APF t-shirts (financed by the War On Want R1.5 million three-year donation), exaggerating the actual size of the APF contingent somewhat.

The DSM/SSM contingent consisted of about thirty students from the Socialist Student Movement University of Durban Westville branch (UDW SSM), joined by half a dozen from the Wits branch. This was the liveliest part of the demo. Selling papers was difficult however. On the other hand, SSM leaflets on the Earth Summit were quickly snatched up.

On the evening before, at a 1,000 strong pro-Palestinian rally at the Johannesburg City Hall, the UDW SSM members brought the hall to a standstill when they entered ‘toiy-toiying’ and hoisted the SSM banner, followed by a lap of honour around the hall. The R250 collected for paper sales (about 70 papers) at the event included donations of R50 and R20.

Whereas the SMI was able to evolve into the SMU in a last minute compromise, the Tripartite Alliance component of the Global Social Forum (GSF) suffered a serious setback when the South African National NGO Coalition (Sangoco) — until now a loyal lapdog — pulled out of the planned counter-march explaining that they could not see themselves marching with the same people (the ANC government) they were protesting against and to whom they wanted to hand over the memorandum. Although their decision to abstain from marching altogether, rather than join the forces they had been maligning all along, deprived the SMI march from more numbers, their stay-away did far more damage to Mbeki and the ANC.

The result was that Mbeki achieved the worst of all possible outcomes: a small turnout at the GSF rally (it was described as a "flop" by Khaya FM radio station, with estimates ranging from 3 – 5,000 in attendance).

Even though the SMU rally, at between 10 and possibly 15,000 was smaller than (unrealistically) hoped for, Mbeki’s flop and the amount of media attention and sympathy the SMU march enjoyed far overshadowed the counter-march and undermined the attempted sabotage. Most humiliating of all, the attempt to substitute repression with appeasement completely backfired when Minister in the Office of the President, Essop Pahad, sent to receive the memorandum, was prevented from addressing the crowd and ordered to leave the stage. The headline in the ‘Sunday World’ paper (linked to the biggest daily, the ‘Sowetan’) read "Voetsek" — the word used to chase away dogs. The humiliation was accentuated by the fact that he had mounted the stage to address the crowd at the invitation of the MC, Virginia Setshedi, who ironically referred to him as "comrade Pahad".

A striking feature of the reaction of Alexandra residents to the march was the overwhelming hatred for Mbeki. Apart from the fact that the attempt to marginalize and intimidate the APF is not a long term viable strategy, the government’s paranoia is a reflection of its growing alienation amongst the working class and poor, especially that of Mbeki.

All in all, it was a triumph for the APF. Despite its very serious weaknesses, it is the only force at least partially filling the vacuum that exists. However, the problems facing it will not go away. The War on Want donation will create new problems, not the least of which is the question of the lack of leadership accountability.

DSM and SSM members have also been involved in helping workers at Wits University. Three weeks ago, the SSM led 600 workers on a demonstration for better conditions. These workers were employed on contract two years ago when the university underwent "restructuring". Students formed a Crisis committee, which fought unsuccessfully against the privatisation of cleansing and other services known as Wits 2001. The APF came into existence from the marriage of this Crisis Committee and the Samwu’s (South African Municipal Workers’ Union) unwanted child – the anti-privatisation campaign against Jo’burg council.

So far, three workers have been dismissed for attending the meetings so we have a battle on our hands. Our aim is to recruit these workers into our union. It’s a huge challenge but we have no choice.

Both our SSM branches continue to face persecution. At UDW campus the university authorities’ ban has not been formally lifted and the comrades are planning an occupation of the Student Representative Council (SRC) offices. At Wits University, the SSM is now registered but the SRC has so far succeeded in manipulating the situation and deprived the SSM of funds.

Protests greet Shimon Peres

On 3 August, DSM and SSM participated in a demonstration against Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, who was in South Africa at the invitation of the ultra-right Jewish Board of Deputies. There were supposed to have been two meetings with him, one private and one public. News of the private meeting leaked. In the end, about 100 mainly Muslim pro-Palestinian activists, Left activists and APF members demonstrated outside the Johannesburg College of Education (JCE).

Although the demonstration at the JCE was relatively peaceful turned violent when police launched an unprovoked attack on demonstrators with water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades. Protesters had decided to march from the JCE to the nearby Hillbrow police station to demand the release of a protester and sat down at the main intersection in front of the police station.

Without warning, jets from the water cannon were followed by blasts from the stun grenades, rubber bullets and attacks on demonstrators by baton-wielding snatch squads. Eighteen protesters, including a 14 year-old boy, were arrested. Four had to be released immediately due to injuries sustained. A dozen protesters were trapped in the doorway of a block of flats into which they had attempted to escape. Police instructed residents who had opened the doors to let them in, to shut the doors, and rained blows down on the trapped protestors.

One DSM member managed to escape but not before receiving several blows on his arms and hearing a baton crushing onto the skull of one protestor. Another DSM member, Lyuanda, who suffers from juvenile arthritis, was arrested. Three policemen threatened to sexually assault her in the cells.

At least two people sustained fairly serious injuries from rubber bullets. The Orange Farm DSM members had to assist a badly injured Canadian activist who had been hit three times by rubber bullets and could hardly walk. They managed to lift him into vehicle of a passing motorist who offered to drive him to hospital.

Through the intervention of the Human Rights Commission and lawyers all those arrested were released the same evening. One protestor remains in hospital.

To add insult to injury, protestors arriving at a private clinic were denied treatment unless they could produce a medical aid card or cash. Two DSM members had to wait until this morning before they could go for x-rays at a public hospital.

Through the intervention of the Human Right Commission, cases are being prepared against the police.

A DSM member, Solomzi, was interviewed by YFM, the most popular youth station in Gauteng and also Jo’burg Summit Radio, which was specially set up for the WSSD.

We have proposed a public meeting to protest against police brutality. In the meantime, although Peres received his audience with Mandela, his public meeting scheduled for today has been cancelled due to criticism of police action. This is a victory for the protesters.

In the meantime, the WSSD/Earth summit is winding down and despite all the hype of last minute compromises and the emergence of alleged sufficient (minus the US) consensus on a number of issues, the attitude of ‘civil society delegates’ is hardening into anger over the cynicism of government delegates who are prepared to sign documents for the sake of appearances, without the slightest intention of implementing anything. Jo’burg is looking increasingly like steps back even from the Rio summit of a decade ago.

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September 2002