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Anti-Racist Strategies: Review of "Dispatches From Durban"

Dan Vea
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Dispatches From Durban: Firsthand Commentaries on the World Conference Against Racism and Post-September 11 Movement Strategies By Eric Mann Frontlines Press, 2002 In this book, Michael Mann brings his experience as a grassroots organizer to the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR). He looks at both the triumphs and failures of the conference, and its implications for both global and local organizing, emphasizing the role of anti-racist activists in the US. His book can be considered many things other than an historical document, among them a strategy guide which puts an emphasis on the nascent reparations movement and its importance in combating racism and imperialism in both the local and global arena, particularly in Palestine. It is an analysis and critique of the relationship between grassroots activists, NGOs, and governments, offering ways in which the Left might proceed in a post-September 11, US dominated political environment. It will appeal to both novices and experienced organizers, laying out a broad range of challenges while still maintaining a positive outlook on the future. The difficulty and importance of maintaining strategic alliances, while still holding true to principle, is highlighted early in the book as Mann describes the mass general strike called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) over privatization on the eve of the conference. The relationship between the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and COSATU is one that struggles to maintain a balance between independence and post-apartheid South Africa’s need to maintain political and economic ties around the world. This serves as our introduction to the conference itself: a mixture of grassroots activists, NGOs, and government delegations (the nature of each written about extensively in the book), who worked through competition between factions, a lack of structure and general disagreements about the language and content of the final declarations. With a particular emphasis on the US, who walked out of the conference ostensibly on the issue of Palestine/Israel, but also for the subject of reparations he writes:

    “The US understands the role of ideology. It tries to rule by intellectual and ideological hegemony when possible and brute force only when persuasion and voluntary self-servitude fail. The US approaches each UN conference as a tactic in its broader strategy of world rule. Thus, despite the weakness of many of the actual antiracist organizations at the WACR, the sum total of their work was still effective enough to momentarily drive the US off a world stage.”

Important laboratory Mann puts emphasis on the responsibility of white anti-racist organizers to aggressively challenge the white US establishment, specifically by rallying around reparations and the Palestinian struggle for independence in this post-September 11 political atmosphere. “Durban, WCAR, and the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) forum in particular, created an important laboratory for assessing the actual state of [US social] movements and their efforts to impact a world event of great possibility. If there is ever to be an effective anti-war movement in the US, it must be tied to the development of a viable international antiracist, anti-imperialist united front.” Dispatches from Durban is a valuable resource for those who wish to educate themselves about the role and formation of the reparations movement and its relationship to struggles for independence around the world. The historical record that Mann has outlined gives us an opportunity to benefit from the lessons of Durban and propel the Left forward against a seemingly unstoppable US-led war machine. In his conclusion, he quotes Desmond Tutu: “We live in a moral universe. The Apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.”