12 September 2001
World Conference Against Racism
A tribute to South Africa
Looking back on the WCAR now that it is over, South Africans can take pride in the recognition from many quarters of our contribution to the success of an enormously challenging conference.
The choice of our country as the venue was from the start a tribute to the achievement of the South African people in partnership with the international community in overcoming the apartheid system – in turning from a history of conflict, division and oppression to the building of peace, tolerance and dignity.
Tolerance and negotiations key to forging a consensus declaration
We believe that we did justify the confidence of UN and the international community.
Mary Robinson, Secretary General to the Conference, commented at one point that "South Africa has taught us the importance of tolerance".
There is no doubt that the lessons of our own experience in finding negotiated solutions where most observers saw only irresolvable conflict served the conference well and helped produce a declaration which will prove to have historical importance.
Achieving the declaration called for mutual compromise, for tolerance and respect of one another’s positions. There had to be a focus on the fundamental values and needs we share rather than lesser, albeit important, differences.
For South Africa, reconciling the imperatives of our international role as host and President of the conference with our own national positions on the issues before the conference did in some cases mean shifting our positions.
At the same time the immense goodwill of the rest of the world towards South Africa also helped foster a climate conducive to forging a consensus declaration from the many positions represented.
A broad agenda for action
Though the world’s media focused on two issues which did play a major part in the conference – the Middle East and reparations for slavery and colonialism - the conference itself and its legacy are much broader than that.
Putting Africa and the developing world high on the international agenda
We are especially pleased at how debate on reparations evolved in the conference. The conference acknowledged that slavery and the slave trade including the transatlantic slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so. The conference declaration went on to call on all states to be aware of the moral obligation to take appropriate and effective measures to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of these practices. The world conference urged international financial and development institutions to give greater priority and allocate appropriate funding for programmes addressing the development challenges of the affected states and societies.
As with our own TRC, the fundamental issue is restoration of dignity and the expression of a commitment on the part of those nations that benefited to make a contribution in partnership with Africa and the developing world to eradicating the legacy of slavery and colonialism through for instance support for MAP.
Our approach puts development at the forefront of efforts to create a world without racism and other forms of discrimination. The adoption of this approach in the declaration will be of immense importance for Africa and the developing world.
For the first time, all the victims have spoken on the record
The conference achieved another historic milestone. Never again can the international community say of any group or people that we do not know of the racism, discrimination, xenophobia or other forms of intolerance that they suffer.
The conference puts on the agenda of every country and every international and multilateral agency the challenge of eradicating the suffering to which the conference bore testimony.
The outcome reinforces our belief that it was not necessary for the United States and Israel to leave the conference before it finished its work – but we also believe and hope that they will throw their weight behind the Declaration and play their part in helping the world meet the challenges of implementing it.
The Middle East
We were under no illusions that the problems of the Middle East could have been resolved at the World Conference. The Declaration nevertheless managed to capture the principled positions of all parties concerned. Although it was adopted with reservations, the very fact that we were able to arrive at some formulations acceptable to everyone, reflects the spirit of tolerance engendered by the conference.
The challenges of implementation
That challenge of implementation is also something for South Africans.
As part of its communications work around the conference, GCIS monitored domestic and international media coverage.
As already noted, it is gratifying to take stock at the end of it all that South Africa’s role is positively viewed almost without exception.
But one pattern that did emerge, particularly in our own media, was that the welcome increase in attention to the current state of racism, discrimination and xenophobia in our country was however focused almost exclusively on the present rather than on the roots of these social scourges or, more importantly still, on the steps that can be taken to eradicate them.
Democracy brought us the possibility of starting the task of eradicating these legacies of our history. We would encourage the media to keep the conference and its Declaration before the South African public – and in particular to focus on and interrogate and debate the challenges of implementation that it brings. That would help us as a nation to advance still further along the road to our goal of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society.
The impact on Durban – and Durban’s contribution
Finally, and also important, as we take stock of such events, we should also recognise the economic impact that it had on the city of Durban and therefore on the country – and we should pay tribute to the city and people of Durban for doing what they did to help make it a successful conference – and to ensure that so many delegates and journalists left with a positive view of our country and wishing to return.
Minister in The Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)