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“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!”

COP 17

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.

How apt.


*All images © Kayla Roux and Jeanne Hefez.

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  1. Lizzy says:

    the violence and intimidation may have happened at the front of the march, but I was in the middle and overall found it to be pretty peaceful, and had no impact on most of the participants. whilst it is important to unpack the problems and discuss the issues around the event, this article tends towards sensationalism. maybe a peaceful march is just too boring?

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  2. Ben says:

    It happened at the back of the march which was separated from the middle. The point is sutclffe and paid people to break up the march.

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  3. Sarah says:

    I was also at the march. The behaviour of the agents in green was shocking, but its sad that the majority of media reports of Saturday have focussed on them. Guess that is exactly what they were aiming for.

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  4. SihleMthembu says:

    Its really unfortunate, KAK at its height

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  5. ngwenya says:

    Yes, I agree with Sarah. I was there too, running back and forth taking pics, and while I saw the lot in green on several occasions, I never saw anything but some robust exchanges and singing (not saying other things didn’t happen). The march was remarkably peaceful and relaxed, despite a rather large police and military presence – and one military honcho I asked admitted that, looking slightly chagrined. I think some of the uniforms are kinda itching for a fight, judging by other things I’ve seen and heard of.

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  6. Benjamin says:

    Although I did not specifically write about it here-busy working on another piece- am I the only one who thinks that the relative peacefulness of the rest of the march was deeply problematic? Hell this is the future of our species we are speaking about and just handed the fuckers some memos with some lukewarm applause and moved on to the official designated ‘occupy areas’. They should have been too terrified of the mob to show their sterile faces.

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  7. Lizzy says:

    @ Benjamin – yes, of course the whole climate negotiation situation is a mess, and the march did nothing to address this. BUT – if we had rioted and looted in the streets, been beaten and teargassed then detained and charged, it still would have had zero impact on the knobs making the decisions. plus there would have been a crazy amount of bad press, the rich would have bemoaned the revolting peasants, and reaffirmed their comfy positions in the world.
    the fact that we were peaceful says at least one thing: we can all unite under a basic concept, dispite very different agendas, and not act like angry children.
    perhaps lets try focus on that?

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  8. Benjamin says:

    I am not advocating ‘rioting and looting’, those don’t mean ‘militant’ tactics. I think we should have firstly told most of these NGOs to fuck off and taken our initiative, rather then being told where we can and cannot exercise our right to freedom of assembly. We should have never let our beloved minister and the women from the UN, get off with empty rhetoric and lukewarm applause. I think for example we should have occupied the expo center and refused to move. My own view is that the organizers/NGOS big honchos of the whole march had their own agenda which is part of a ritual which follows of every mega-event of this sort, which differs radically from what is needed. Plus the rich and the press can go fuck themselves, looks at all that’s happened over the last year, we are in the middle of a truly global revolt and I was hoping COP17 would be one of the front lines.

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  9. Lizzy says:

    Noted. as a climate conference, unfortunately it seems as though COP17 is a well-run flop, and the people making decisions are not even the right people. I reckon the way forward is probably localised climate action. but i’m hardly an expert.

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