tears... a reflection; plus my latest South Africa trip

tears... a reflection; plus my latest South Africa trip to the World Conference Against Racism

by Ethan Flad chillye@hotmail.com
September 14, 2001

I don't cry.

There are times when I wish I did.

Sometimes, at the movies, I feel I'm supposed to cry. I tried to force myself to cry during "Malcolm X," simply because the book had been so influential in my life, and I felt I owed it to respond emotionally to the film. Perhaps the closest I came in the past three years, ironically, was during "Boys Don't Cry." The pain in Hilary Swank's character and the revulsion I felt to some scenes hit a deep chord within me -- and I almost cried. But I didn't.

I used to cry a lot as a kid, I seem to recall. Every time that I got beat up -- and my skinny ass got whupped on many occasions -- I'm pretty sure I bawled. But my adventures in pugilism ended in the 8th Grade, so I've not had outpouring of a "good cry" for this physical reason in a couple decades. I've cried a few times in recent years at the ending of relationships, or at critical junctures in them. "Let it all out," we're told. That seems a fallacy to me. I've found little relief at the end of my tears... just more grief. Anyway, crying for one's own troubles is different than pouring out your emotions on behalf of others. Why didn't I cry at the news of my grandfather's death, at the funeral of my good friend, and other tragic moments?

How are some people able to respond to the lives, deaths, and pains of others so readily and emotively? Is it simply socialization? Is it physical? Do some people actually care more than others?

I believe in God.

I believe in a Spirit, a Force, a Hand which brings beings to life... and in some manner knows of their deaths. I am troubled by some developments in genetic engineering, which I'm convinced is due to my faith in God. I claim there are certain aspects of life, of "Creation," which we humans are "not intended" to meddle. I've been to places on this earth -- Banff, Victoria Falls, Abiquiu, Sagada, the view of Mount Crane from my grandparents' home in the Adirondacks -- that I believe owe their natural beauty to a so-called Higher Being.

Does God cry?

Yeah, it's cheezy. But as you know, so am I, most of the time (humor-wise, anyway).

The past couple days, immediately after the bombings in the U.S., it rained in Johannesburg. It poured. Lightning and thunder splattered that city with powerful force. It had not rained in weeks in Jo'burg. I had just gotten there from Durban a couple days earlier. I spoke to a friend in Durban -- it had been raining the past couple days. The same news came from Cape Town. I arrived in Paris, on a flight from Jo'burg. The streets were wet -- it had rained on Thursday, and the skies were gray & foreboding on my arrival. I'm watching CNN as I write this... it's raining in New York and Washington DC, very bad news for all the rescue efforts there.

I don't know, but I think God is crying.

I wish I could.

Many of you on my email list know I've been in South Africa for the past three weeks, primarily to attend the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (hereafter known as the WCAR). I had hoped to send one or two reports from Durban, but that hope was not realized. Lack of time and especially lack of online access -- a grand total of 25 computers were available to the thousands of NGOs (representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations) attending the governmental conference, 10 on-site and 15 at an Internet cafe a couple blocks away, which prevented my good intentions from coming to fruition. So belatedly, please find below some brief thoughts, jotted down this weekend.

FYI, for those who actually like my extensive, rambling journals, I AM working on one of my trademark epic novellas for mass distribution soon. Like the ones I sent last year during my travels, it will be looooong. [I've written 20 pages thus far on just the first nine days of my trip, most of which preceded the conference.] You can look forward to recollections about a dinner with Desmond Tutu, a plane trip with Michael Lapsley, and my trip to Khayelitsha township which included a gift of Soccer in the Streets equipment. So I'm asking you to let me know in advance if you want a copy of it. I don't want to burden everyone on this network with a massive email (this is big, but that will be huge), unless you want it. I hope to send it out next week, if you're interested. {If you write back to me, please delete the text of this message.]

I just arrived back in the US. I was on the first Air France flight back to San Francisco, a long story that is not worth giving at this time. Thank you to my friends Eliza & Spencer Pickard, who hosted me for one night in Paris and were prepared to do so for much longer, based on the expectation that I would be stuck there for several days. Now, as promised, to a review of the "WCAR": it was actually three conferences, as you may know. There were two non-governmental events which took place from August 26-31, and the governmental program was held from August 31 - September 7. I missed the first conference altogether, a two-day Youth Summit. Despite the accusation many of you would make that I'm no longer a youth (M, Sarita, etc), so why would I even have thought to attend that, I actually scrape into the "youth" definition used by many Geneva-based world agencies -- they usually allow for folks up to 35. My gray hair usually gives me away, but I was rolling with laughter when someone a couple weeks ago wonderfully guessed my age as early 20s!

I did arrive in time for the main NGO conference, which began on the 28th. As you may have heard, it was, to use a favorite South African word, a "hectic" (often pronounced 'ectic) affair. Dozens of panels and workshops were being offered at any given time, in addition to all the people who were concentrating their efforts on drafting the huge NGO document that would be presented to the U.N. governmental conference a few days later.

Unfortunately, the company that had been contracted to coordinate all the logistics for the NGO conference failed to meet up to the job. I'm fortunate that I was staying with the family of my friend Yolanda Sangweni during the entire time I was in Durban. Most people, of course, stayed in hotels, and I heard many bad stories. First off, many people did not learn where they were staying until less than a week before arriving in South Africa! Second, many people were actually moved from one accomodation to another one, after their first few days. Some of the facilities were an hour or more away, serviceable only by twice-daily bus rides (don't miss it!). It was not a good scene.

More disturbingly, almost all preparatory information we were given outlining the conference proceedings was incomplete and often wrong. When the booklet actually gave information about a workshop, you'd go and it wasn't there. Three people invited me to workshops, and none of them were where they'd been told they'd be, so I missed them all. Similarly, you stood in endless lines to get passes that would get you to another level of security, etc. Believe it or not, I spent over eight (yes, 8) hours in line one day waiting for a pass to the governmental conference -- missing a whole day of the NGO proceedings in the process (I am describing this as my "INS experience day"). The one good part about all of these hassles was that you ended up REALLY getting to know people who were similarly inconvenienced, and building some good relationships that would last through the conference (and hopefully well beyond). Since there were so many intriguing people from all around the world in Durban, this was a good thing. One other thing -- when you DID actually get to a workshop, you usually knew that the people there were really committed to it. I attended one workshop on micro-enterprise development where the 15 of us sat outside on the curb in a parking lot (literally), as it got dark, since the museum where it was supposed to take place was closed! It was just crazy.

The lack of information, or perhaps mis-/dis-information (I spoke to several people who opined that what was happening was in fact intentional -- that there were people/forces who wanted us to get frustrated and angry at one another), often led to a feeling that you were missing what was "really happening." I missed the big marches in part because no one could give me the right info about when & where they were taking place. The Media Tent didn't know, for goodness sake! What can you do? With all of those problems, in many ways you just had to accept that your experience was just that -- your experience -- and that with so much going on you would naturally have to miss a lot, so take what you could out of your own visit and meetings.

In terms of the governmental conference, it was similarly hard to get a grasp on what was going on, due to the intricately political process that is by nature not designed to "welcome newcomers." It was only by the very end of the week-long governmental event that I really understood the process -- the semi-hidden rooms where the official documents were being worked on, and how you as an NGO representative could (try to) influence the process & documents. I feel a bit saddened about that -- I could and perhaps should have been better prepared to work in that context -- but (1) that was not the main reason that I went to Durban, and (2) those of us Anglican church folks had not been organized in a delegation (unlike some of our fellow mainstream Christian denominational friends), which would have helped me & also some of my US Episcopal colleagues.

There were, actually, a good number of Episcopal/Anglican church people from different parts of the world there in Durban, and I spent some of my time building relationships with them and other faith-based activists attending the conference. My main priority for the trip was to recruit people to be writers for the "A Global Witness" web site project that I coordinate for "The Witness" magazine. I hope that in this context the trip was a success -- over the coming months we will see whether the people who said they want to write for us indeed do so. The first test will be within the month. About 40 religious people have said they will write an article about Durban for "A Global Witness," or will let us publish a piece they were planning to write for another purpose. So, by mid-October my intention is to have a collection of a couple dozen essays on the WCAR, from people all over the world, many of whom were there.

[Currently, although we had suspended posting new content onour web site for the period of my trip, the tragic events of this past week have spurred my fine colleagues at The Witness to begin collecting & posting perspectives on this series of events as we receive them. With the U.S. and some of its allies speaking the language of war right now, The Witness is working to help bring forward your voices on what we must do together as a human community to achieve a lasting peace. Please visit us at http://www.thewitness.org/agw/ and share your own thoughts.]

Now back to Durban. I was not in Durban for the very end of the conference, as I'd left for Johannesburg, but the last thing I heard on the way to the bus station was that the governments had finally agreed to call slavery a "crime against humanity," or words to that effect. It saddened me that it had taken a full year for this to be agreed -- that only at the so-called 13th hour could this be acknowledged by the community of nations at the governmental summit. If this type of language had been understood earlier, many other agreements would have been possible. Indeed, during my last 24 hours at the WCAR I heard two different leaders of the event -- one was Mary Robinson, the U.N. Hugh Commissioner for Human Rights and the head of the entire conference, and the other was an NGO representative who was on the often-controversial International Steering Committee -- both make statements that "Durban should not be seen as an end, but a beginning." While I would agree that the WCAR was indeed a mechanism to highlight these issues in a way that will hopefully have long-term effects around the world, I thought it was cheap for them to make those comments as a way to attempt to mollify all of us who had such greater expectations for what would come out ofthe event.

As someone who has become increasingly concerned about the conflict in Palestine/ Israel, and who is now very supportive of creating a just peace there (please see the September issue of The Witness, offered on our web site at http://www.thewitness.org), I was initially very happy to see that the issue was getting strong visibility. Ultimately, however, the harsh Middle East debate created a fairly negative experience. At least in the international media coverage, it shrouded many of the other important issues that the world community needed to hear from Durban. Mary Robinson articulated her last-minute refusal to recommend the NGO document in relationship (an important issue, given her power) to its comments on Zionism. And I saw the dialogue break down into a lot of slogans. I saw people that were wearing the Palestinian kaffiyeh (sp? the trademark black & white scarf) standing in line to get a t-shirt from a pro-Zionist group -- ah, the political power of free clothing. While it amused me, it also saddened me that people had no analysis of what they were doing.

All of you know about the pullout of the U.S. and Israel (since several of you have already asked me about it). I think that the most interesting quote I heard about this was made the next day at a press conference held out on the grass by a group of U.S. NGOs. A young 20-something Asian-American, wearing a black Third World Within shirt, forcefully declared, "This is not new; this does not surprise me at all. The U.S. government has NEVER been here!" I heard that a couple days later Jesse Jackson, one of the many high-profile U.S. activists who were in Durban, used basically the same quote -- the U.S. not being there was just the fulfilment of a long-term process of it avoiding this issue & conference -- and I said to myself, "I already heard that, from a youth!"

I'll admit that at the time, I really didn't think it was a bad thing. I saw the U.S. departure as part of a continuum of isolationism this year, since the Bush administration took office. From the Kyoto protocol on climate change to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the treaty on land mines to looking at peace in the Middle East, the U.S. government has made it clear that it feels it knows best, and does not need the input of international partners to come to foreign and social policy decisions. To me, their leaving Durban was a clincher. [The events of the past few days have caused me to struggle with this topic. Mostly, I feel more convinced that the U.S. shunning the WCAR has helped lead to the tragic situation we now face, based on our government's unilateral efforts at developing foreign policy. Since it has cut-off so many opportunities at developing relationships with other nations, it is no longer in dialogue with policy-makers -- whether it agrees with them or not -- who can help outline concerns and potential problems of all sorts.]

Speaking of Jesse, I have to admit to a personal struggle around "hearing the message." Some of the high-profile speakers no longer get my respect, and it's hard to listen to them when you have these other issues. Jesse's personal troubles over the past year -- as well as some of his political machinations with the Establishment -- have sullied this person who twice voted for him in Democratic primaries. Fidel Castro, the main speaker at the NGO closing ceremony, continues to get my props for defying the U.S. embargo, but otherwise I have little respect for his endless term in office as well as his intolerance of opposition views. Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa and oft-figurehead of major WCAR events, has lost credibility worldwide for his incomprehensible comments on HIV/AIDS, and at home for his ANC government's recent massive purchase of military arms (with no viable threats, and in the midst of deepening poverty and unemployment). Most of all, I had a hard time supporting the Reparations movement when the African figurehead for their cause was Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. My visit to Zim last year and the many Zim friends I've made over the past 18 months (almost all of whom are black, and none of whom are large landowners or commercial farmers) have shown me the deep disillusionment with his regime & his ongoing efforts to stay in power. It was impossible for me initially to listen to the call for reparations by African American activists clad in Mugabe t-shirts, and based on my understanding of corruption and political repression in his nation to not dismiss their cause. However, in a discussion with Michael Lapsley about the power of being with Desmond Tutu, he talked about our American need for "star power," and how we don't like to see/know the bad with the good. I'm going to have to work on this.

There were certainly some good things to come out of the WCAR in Durban, over and above a temporary boosting of the local economy (no small issue, considering the devaluation of the South African Rand currency, as well as the ongoing loss of jobs) -- particularly the coffers of local taxicab companies. As I wrote previously, one joy was the invaluable networking opportunity this unique type of event offered social justice & human rights activists from around the world. THIS was humanity! You would look around you and see people from virtually every nation, dozens of native languages undergirding the discussions between people of all shades, heights, ages, experiences, and perspectives, clad in vibrant, multicolored attire. Another positive was the attention given to displaced, disempowered, and underrepresented communities. This high-profile gathering gave almost unknown populations the opportunity for media coverage and for eventual recognition in U.N. documents, confirming their status as groups with protected rights. Two groups who were more successful in getting visibility were the Roma (known to some as Gypsies) of Europe and the Dalits of India (known at one time to the world as the Untouchables). There were almost 200 people at the conferences representing the Dalit community, which may seem like a lot, but given the fact that estimates range between 170-250 million Dalits, a delegation of a couple hundred seemed entirely appropriate! Less successful were indigenous advocates, particularly from the Americas, who found much of the draft language in the document both offensive and potentially harmful to their efforts and gaining rights. A lot of their work focused on one specific piece of language: getting the U.N. to use the term "indigenous peoples" (emphasis on the final "S"), which would lay the groundwork for their claims for recognition as sovereign nations.

All in all, I think the WCAR was an extraordinary event that missed its mark. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with it was its long name (but who am I to decry something long?!): some would argue that any effort to come to consensus on issues of "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance" was doomed from the start (that would be a problem in a local community, let alone an international forum). More specifically, for those of us keen to address racism in an global context as a manifestation of white supremacy -- historically and current-day -- this event was not a success. With all of the other "related" issues being pushed to the fore, the initial word, "racism." was de-prioritized. While on the one hand I agree it is essential to discuss the intersectionalities of oppressions -- the ways in which racism is interconnected with sexism, nationalism, militarism, homophobia, the criminal (in-)justice system, and so forth -- it seemed we needed to find ways to focus. And the agenda was so large as to prevent such focus.

There was one other piece that I'd hoped to see, but thought went missing. There were two faith-based "Caucuses" which worked throughout the conference to bring religious perspectives to the deliberations. One of them was called the "Ecumenical Caucus," and it was basically a group of progressive Christian activists, spearheaded by a small dynamic delegation from the World Council of Churches. The second was called the "Spiritual and Religious Caucus," I believe, and I had been told before the conference that this interfaith collective was going to focus on spiritually contextualizing the heated dialogue. Given these sensitive, often painful issues, their aim was to help encourage a personally transforming experience. My sense was that given the level of rancor in these debates, this was a valuable ideal, but that they were ultimately unsuccessful in meeting that goal.

I hope these thoughts give you some additional insight to what you have already read, heard, and seen. I will do my best to write each of you back who write to me over the coming days, though I trust you will understand this is my first real opportunity to be at a computer in a month. [Again, if you respond to this note, PLEASE delete the text of this original email from me.] Thanks especially to all the people who personally made my experience in Durban an enriching one: Yolanda, Nomi, Ace, Connie, Eddie, Grant, Sarah, Peter, Kathryn, Clint, Sonya, Jonathan, Julaine, Donna, Tim, Dimple, Sharda, Rosa, Carol, Jayne, Angela, Lloyd, Laura, Jennifer, Anneta, Pauline, Mariela, Lorena, Isaac, Lulama, Rubin, Kamala, Michael, Jacqueline, Lyn, Sonia, Leah, Sammy, Loretta, Obadiah, and many more. I look forward to keeping in contact with you all.

With love, respect, and in stalwart hope for enabling peace, Ethan in Oakland (cell #510.701.5267)


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