“Africa is Under-Polluted”by Ben Fogel / Images by Kayla Roux and Jeanne Hefez / 05.12.2011
The International Conference Center (ICC) in Durban where the COP 17 talks are taking place is located between a Nedbank office block and a mall. A location that effectively symbolizes what ultimately stands in the way of genuine environmental action: state-protected big business and the gratifying wonders of consumerism.
People marched on the ICC this past Friday to protest reports that developed nations have basically written the event off and are refusing to commit to any serious cuts in emissions until at least 2020. Former Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solon, declared: “If this deal goes through, one third of the planet will be laid [to] waste.” He meant the Global South and Africa in particular. As Larry Summers, a former Obama-Clinton advisor, Harvard President and Wall Street stooge, once put it, “Africa is under-polluted!”
Some 1000 activists decided to storm the gates walling off the conference from the rest of Durban, taking the police entirely by surprise. The shock led to a potentially incendiary moment. There were enough protestors to initially overwhelm the skeleton police presence and they called in reinforcements from behind the walled-off COP 17 compound. Soon police vans and 30 cops in riot gear rocked up looking confused. They failed to stop people from the Rural Women’s Assembly from occupying the designated space for protest at Speaker’s Corner, but rallied fast and set up a perimeter between the entrance to COP 17 and the street. They tried to push the crowds back towards the street where they wouldn’t disturb the delegates. General Cele might be gone, but the legacy of his Michael Bay inspired policing tactics remains firmly embedded within the culture of South Africa’s finest.
On Saturday, it was soon apparent that the police had a late night planning session with the Durban municipality. They wouldn’t be caught off guard again. The designated protest route was changed repeatedly by the Municipality. It felt like a deliberate attempt to isolate “radical elements” and show them who is boss. Durban city authorities eventually attempted to block the march from taking place at all. The city had to be taken to court for the march to happen. They backed down at the last minute but insisted on an alternate route far removed from the ICC. The case is sure to have national significance – hopefully exposing the tendency to officially excuse mega-events, UN conferences and the World Cup, from the peoples’ constitutional right of freedom of assembly.
Thousands of protestors finally marched across Durban. A march besieged by a group of pro-Zuma ANC supporters dressed in green ‘COP17 volunteer’ shirts. I personally witnessed them throwing bottles and stones. They ripped up placards while openly acknowledged they were ANCYL members. Part of a local pro-Zuma, anti-Malema faction. They sung ‘Mshini wami’ and chanted slogans in support of COP 17. One of them shouted at the Rural Women Assembly, “How much Lobola for you bitch?”
But, what were pro-Zuma supporters doing harassing protestors on the International Day of Climate Action?
They even admitted to being sent to disrupt the march by local ANC branches. Over 400 marshals failed to intervene. The police actively isolated the Democratic Left Front (DLF) from joining the rest of the protest. ANCYL cadres then physically attacked several of the DLF contingent. Ayanda Kota, part of the DLF group, told me later: “What we experienced yesterday was another example of the fascism for sale of the ANCYL and the treachery of the COSATU leadership.” He suggested COSATU was behind suppressing non-alligned, poor, militant and radical voices all over the country. At a subsequent press conference, the DLF and Desmond Desai from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, both noted that these ANCYL “Green Bombers” were on the Durban City payroll, representing both the UN and the Zuma regime’s desire for a seamless global media event.
We thought, while marching, that the ANC “agent provocateurs” were part of the broader protest action, at first. Then we noticed they were singing songs calling for Juju’s head! Allegedly some 200 of these Green Bombers were paid R180 to disrupt the protest. They also seem to have been prompted to target DLF supporters and grassroots organizations supporting the “1 million climate jobs campaign”. This section of the march was deliberately separated with the help of marshals supplied by COSATU. The march itself was comprised largely of NGOs and COSATU members. Harassment of protestors while police stood back went on for over 4 hours suggesting co-ordination and complicity between the police and the ANC crowd. A complicity recorded repeatedly in political violence around Durban.
Universally loathed, Durban City Manager, Mike Sutcliffe, is a man not known for his tolerance of dissenting voices. Rehad Desai reports that Sutcliffe wanted to restrict the march to a manageable 100 people. Failing that, he tried to keep the march out of the CBD. Only after being confronted by protest lawyers representing civil society, was the march allowed.
The DLF has initiated a criminal case against the individuals responsible for the violence towards the protestors as well as a civil case against the city of Durban, the mayor and city manager in particular. Sutcliffe and the Municipality have developed a reputation over the years for criminalizing politics outside of the official ruling channels. The result is a disturbing conflation between the local ANC and the state.
Abahlali baseMjondolo, an independent grassroots organisation, has been on the receiving end of state violence in Durban for years. Its members are often attacked. Infamously, in 2009, the Kennedy Road pogrom took place. Hundreds of Abahlali members were illegally expelled from the informal settlement leading to several violent deaths. The Durban municipality tried to control awareness of the assault by charging the victims. The case was thrown out of court earlier this year.
On the face of it, it seems that a UN Conference that amounts to a superficial stage-managed show of grappling with imminent environmental collapse without really committing anyone to anything, is happening in a city run by a municipality that pays thugs to attack legitimate protest.
*All images © Kayla Roux and Jeanne Hefez.