And now, 20 years after, almost to the day, we have seen the rumblings of the things that were being discussed in Durban, and yet people are still not listening. They are yet to recognise that White Supremacy, as a global system or a national system, is unsustainable in a world where people are increasingly knowledgeable and exposed to the lie of race.
It is twenty years since the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. It was a memorable, life-defining, epoch-making experience. One that defined and will still define the issue of race equality for time to come. It was a popular foundation for the world to accept that not only was there systemic racism, but that this was at the core of the global system, both consciously and unconsciously. What has followed in the last two decades has been for the world to take the baton of all that has gone before and actively seeking to change the system, while going forward.
The Durban memories are many and varied. One of the greatest was the speech by the illustrous American actor, Danny Glover, whose rhetoric on that day seemed overblown, but his words have actually proven to be almost prophetic. And, when you reflect on what he said, as we gathered in the protest for reparations, it is scary that those things are coming true right now.
He was slightly elevated but accessible, if I remember correctly, with a megaphone. He said that we the children of Africa from all over the world, were standing in the spectrum of brown, caramel, chocolate, all burnished by the sunset of Kwazulu Natal. Indeed, perhaps for the first time, cheek to cheek and shoulder to shoulder, asking the world to recognise the depth of the pain of the suffering of our ancestors, under the clouds of the continent of Africa, and as the sun had left memories of the day in its distant horizon across the sky. It had been a long, glorious day; and it had been a long, long journey to get to where we were being corralled, harassed and sometimes attacked by the UN Police in a totally unprecedented manner.
The World Conference against Racism for me was actually an awakening. Today, we say people are ‘woke’.
I was then coming from a racial equality fight in the United Kingdom and had established a company that was capable of independently educating, facilitating and challenging the institutions of the state and of the private sector to understand and accept that there was a fundamental, systemic problem in the way society was organised. And, there was an assumption of what was called normal, which essentially was that of so-called ‘white people’, and a system that assumed that if you were of African descent or other so-called ‘minorities’, there was no specific means for you to be considered originally, and there was only a kind of moral need for adjustments to be made to tolerate you. This blighted my racial equality work. Except you were able to show personal malevolent choices, it was really difficult to prove any form of discrimination then. Since, especially in the U.K., there was no possibility of a class action, the best that could be done was to hope that the continuous drips of personal complaints and the broader training of individuals, would inspire change, even when the indignation was well established, as was case by case damage or remedy.
As such, by the time notice of the World Conference against Racism accidentally landed on my table, I had almost exhausted the goodwill, the understanding, the acceptance of my own model of challenging systemic inequality in the United Kingdom; or at least that was what I thought. At the same time, I was in a place where I felt that I was coming close to the ending of where my mother had passed on. Yes, just a few years short of her milestone age of 38, and a transition I thought was an inevitable outcome. And so, there was a certain kind of recklessness, or shall I say boldness, towards trying to make the world a better place. Therefore, I went to Durban as part of the NGO contingent, even though I did not belong to them, coming from the world of private sector consultancy. It was my first adventure into some form of activism, even though my entire business model was based on changing society and the world, ultimately for the better.
Many of us in Durban were not surprised and we left with a sense of foreboding that we were in a world where there was no answer to the intransigence of the U.S. We felt the world needed to listen to the voices and warning of the World Conference Against Racism. I certainly believed we had then opened the door to recognition of the systemic and global system of racism explicitly, and no matter what, that genie could never go back into the bottle.
Thankfully, I found myself going to the Durban NGO event, despite not really being from the community of not-for-profits nor was I staying with any in Durban. But that did not stop the embrace of, the deliberations and, actually, the knowledge-building that occurred in the interaction with the not-for-profit sector. Slowly and gradually, I became part of a dialogue to ensure that the event was going to be powerful enough to leave a mark on the world. Surely, we could do that, I thought. So, we started organising and engaging on the issue of reparations for the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. At the same time, I was being introduced to the Nigeria that was emerging from the pain of the Abacha years, while meeting the newer NGO lights of the new Republic. Africans from across the world, representing all forms of activism, mixed under the glaring disdain of the new U.S. administration and the twin light of African representatives of their arrogance – Condeeleza Rice and General Colin Powell. For the first time, U.S. foreign policy was fully represented by descendants of the pains of Trans-Atlantic Slavery and they were boldly saying: Get over it.
As such, we planned and discussed how after each formal delibration we were going to make sure that the United Nations (UN) took very seriously the consequences, the effects and the ramifications of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and how to bring together all the African Diaspora to support that. Of course, there were other issues. There was the issue of Zionism and racism, and specifically the fig leaf which the American delegation used to cover their instinctive reaction against a deliberation on systemic racism. And, quite shamefully, it was General Powell and Dr Condoleeza Rice who were used as the arrowheads of denying the results of the deliberations of the World Conference against Racism. Also, the effect of pulling the American delegation out of any discussion that was profitable from that august occasion. There is the boycott that still rings out till today, in the words of President Macron, calling out Durban to delegitimise and boycott a planned UN event in 2021.
It was a critical milestone of the Bush administration’s disdain for world opinion, and the first global act highlighting an administration that had just come out of the Supreme Court decision on Bush vs Gore after the fiasco in Florida, during the U.S. presidential election. Hence, everybody who was on the left side of the so-called divide was reticent that the American administration did not care and were fully on a colonial project. In fact, they didn’t disappoint in their actions and decisions, as they led a boycott of Durban, with the predictable support of all Western countries who followed suit, one after the other, without fail. Many of us in Durban were not surprised and we left with a sense of foreboding that we were in a world where there was no answer to the intransigence of the U.S. We felt the world needed to listen to the voices and warning of the World Conference Against Racism. I certainly believed we had then opened the door to recognition of the systemic and global system of racism explicitly, and no matter what, that genie could never go back into the bottle.
Looking back, there were many sub-plots and today there have been fundamental changes: Many people and pamphlets from Oromia threatening to secede from Ethiopia because it was dominated by Tigrayan people. The Oromia people, who constituted the most population, were ‘excluded’ from the nation. I also remember the protest about Sudan. And, there was a movement from South Sudan then, including, of course, all the other tinder issues that you would see at a UN conference on racism. In 2021, these two mentioned concerns have become fundamentally transformed. Of all what really stood out was that deliberation on reparations, and the decision on the systemic issue of racism. The decision that was taken, in that time, in that place, is still rumbling across the world today: From the global Black Lives Matter protests, the clarity and power of Critical Race Theory, and the fact that the President of France, recently, was still citing that conference as a reason for boycotting a UN session.
It was actually indisputable that the entire Western alliance decided to turn the Durban World Conference against Racism into a milestone of disagreement with the rest of the world. It is quite interesting to note that the rest of the world has been rather silent in the years after about the decisions that were taken in Durban. But the effects, even now, a year after the murder of George Floyd, still manifest as a powerful change in the way the world is going to deal with racial inequality.
Actually, something more obviously and literarily ground shattering occurred and it overshadowed people’s recognition of the World Conference against Racism. In many ways, it rushed the world into a new epoch and century in a reactive and not intentional manner. We had entered through the portal because a few days after Durban, planes were flown into the World Trade Centre in New York City.
In my own world, before going to Durban, I had just completed the writing of a play. In many ways, that play, and the words that were exchanged in it, were about systemic racism and how this manifested in Abyssinia in its interaction with United Kingdom in the later part of the 19th century. I wrote about a world in which Western opaqueness and obtuseness led to the suicide of an African Emperor – a narrative of an intervention that had a very damaging legacy on the life of a African nation and its young prince, alongside the loss of one of the greatest libraries in the world, the treasures of Madqala, including one of the oldest Bibles that was pillaged by the British state.
So, it was very clear to me in Durban that the pattern of systemic abuse of Africans and their continent was not new. When I was writing that play, little did I know that it would start touring in September, after I came back from the World Conference against Racism. Actually, something more obviously and literarily ground shattering occurred and it overshadowed people’s recognition of the World Conference against Racism. In many ways, it rushed the world into a new epoch and century in a reactive and not intentional manner. We had entered through the portal because a few days after Durban, planes were flown into the World Trade Centre in New York City.
I remember where I was when it all happened. And, I remember that I was not surprised because I had been to Durban. I had seen that the world was going towards such a cataclysmic event. It was very clear. Durban was that event, in a way, that opened the portal. We were either going to fix the way ahead or we were going to traumatise each other. And so the words of the play, Abyssinia, came alive in the World Trade Centre, as the very warnings of that play became manifest in reality. However, it was far too dangerous to call out Western hubris and deafness. The dangers of relying on military capacity, rather than evolving the patience to listen and understand from common humanity, as well as complexity, was looming large.
And now, 20 years after, almost to the day, we have seen the rumblings of the things that were being discussed in Durban, and yet people are still not listening. They are yet to recognise that White Supremacy, as a global system or a national system, is unsustainable in a world where people are increasingly knowledgeable and exposed to the lie of race. We have not understood that there will never be a secure society in which the hegemony of one ethnic group over the other can be sustained. And so, we see the upheaval in Ethiopia. We are also coming to terms with the fact that we are a global and interdependent world, where it is very critical that we look after each other, as we are seeing with the pandemic, and with vaccination nationalism.
It is also clear, 20 years after the World Conference against Racism, that we are now realising that capitalism, as is presently practiced with the notion of scarcity, is unsustainable. Nor can the hegemony of the U.S., through which other people are children of a lesser God and the caste system of White Supremacy runs things, within that country and across the world, be ever acceptable. So, when people attack Critical Race Theory, the challenge is that they can arrogantly, in an interdependent world, continue to maintain their racial privilege. Across the world and in the U.K., when we deny existence of systemic racism and people are silent when other people are stigmatised on the basis of their ethnicity, when people ignore the pain of others, we create a world that is unsustainable. So, there are many words from the World Conference against Racism that are defining of my life, of my interest, of my commitment. And I commend that conference to everybody, to go through the many deliberations and think with an open mind, because its words have not been put to rest. They are alive. The portal is still open, and the change is yet to become reality. Without intentionally embracing Durban, its consciousness will not rest but keep leaking out in the most surprising of places.
Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.