by Jared Sacks, Pambazuka
‘Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories!’ - Amilcar Cabral
Over the past few weeks, world leaders, technocrats, and NGOs descended
upon Durban for the 17th Conference of Parties (dubbed the Conference of
Polluters by its critics). After 17 years of meetings to address
climate change, the lack of action from world leaders clearly shows that
the biggest polluting nations not only lack the political will to
address the issue, but also seem to be actively carrying out the
anti-environmental agenda of the largest corporations on this planet.
The sizeable NGOs who have made their name fighting climate change are
surely correct when they link the Obama and Harper governments, and
indeed the entire COP process, to the likes of Royal Dutch Shell, Eskom
and Koch Industries. Some great slogans have come out of this opposition
to the conference. Earthlife Africa's catchphrase on their t-shirts
tells us to ‘never trust a COP’ playing off of the duplicity and
corruption of both the police and the COP process.
Yet the opposition front of civil society that came together to form C17
and organised a Global Day of Action at the event, tells only part of
the story. The issue that is glossed over relates to the definitions of
who is ‘civil society’ and therefore who was really speaking at the
myriad events organised by C17 NGOs, such as the International Climate
Jobs Conference, the People's Space at UKZN, Greenpeace’s Solar Tent,
and even the 10,000 strong Global Day of Action.
ON THE CLIMATE BUS PART ONE
On 1 December, we embarked on a gruelling 27-hour trip from Cape Town to
Durban. The C17 Climate Bus Caravan was populated mostly by poor
activists and lower level NGO workers. The conditions in our two buses
coming from Cape Town were less than ideal, especially the hourly
pit-stops that resulted from the lack of a toilet on-board. The
organising was also less than ideal; we got lost on the way and did not
know where we were staying once we arrived in Durban.
But these were hardcore activists, many who live in shacks or council
homes and some who have been shot at and jailed for their activism.
Conditions were not the issue. The overriding complaint I heard over and
over from fellow travellers was the unfairness of the situation: why
were the actual NGO directors who paid for the trip not on the bus with
SLUMMING IT AT THE REFUGEE CAMP
Upon arrival in Durban, we eventually found our accommodation for the
next three days: C17's Climate Change Refugee Camp. As activists, we
were willing to make a political statement by living in huge communal
tents with sub-par ablution facilities, dirty blankets and conditions
mirroring a refugee camp.
As Mzonke Poni from Abahlali baseMjondolo told me: ‘The camp was a true
reflection of a people’s space. The actual People’s Space at UKZN was
more of an intellectual space…I enjoyed the experience at the camp.’
Indeed, communal spaces where the poor are dumped are often much more
open and accessible spaces than the rigidly organised initiatives built
to include the poor.
Once again, the underlying grievance behind the majority of participants
was that the executives of the C17 social justice NGOs who organised
the camp to make a political statement were sleeping comfortably in
LEADING SILENT SHEEP
What became clear throughout the trip was that we (the thousands of
activists brought in from all over the country) were a crowd whose
primary purpose was to provide legitimacy to the C17 NGO’s claims that
their agendas had popular support. This was why free t-shirts were
handed out advertising NGOs and their environmental justice campaigns.
Furthermore, activists' trips sponsored by C17 NGOs were told to wear
Earthlife Africa or Million Climate Jobs shirts instead of those of
their own organisations. Activists whose trip was sponsored by the
Democratic Left Front (DLF) were encouraged to wear only DLF t-shirts.
What this meant is, as Mzonke Poni put it, ‘the role of community-based
organisations (CBOs) have been undermined...the crowd was rented to top
up the numbers.’
Indeed, there was effectively no space for CBOs and movements to talk
about what climate change actually means to their lived experience.
Their anti-climate change agenda was defined on their behalf. Even at
the massive march on 3 December, only a couple of high-powered speakers
such as COSATU's Zwelinzima Vavi were given a space to speak.
As Charles Adams from Mitchell's Plain explained: ‘They [NGOs] should
have involved the community people and given them a space to speak, not
just the organisers.’
This was evident not only at the NGO controlled march, but also at all
other C17 events. It seems that at times even the Occupy COP17 General
Assembly was itself occupied by NGOs, and its agenda set from the
top-down by these organisations’ directors.
In one instance, community activists eventually fought back. According
to participants, the DLF leadership had placed members in accommodation
‘not fit for a human being’ and given ‘expired food’ while they
themselves stayed in much better lodging. Members revolted against the
DLF leadership by disrupting a public lecture and shamed them into
ensuring that their conditions were improved. Still, members remained
angry and unsatisfied at the reproduction of inequality by the DLF
The end result was not only that C17 NGO autocrats used the bodies of
community activists while silencing their voices, they also undermined
the entire anti-climate change agenda. A discussion with Melissa Jaxa
from the artistic collective Soundz of the South was instructive: ‘I
think we should be consulted as the masses. As we call ourselves
socialists, we should make decisions together about who should speak at
our events. They [C17] didn't take us seriously. We are against COP17
but we ended up working with them.’
In fact, anyone present at the Global Day of Action would have clearly
seen the ANC supporters donning official eThekwini COP17 uniforms,
shouting pro-Zuma slogans, and abusing and assaulting other protesters.
How could the C17 organisers have allowed them to participate in the
same space as a march meant to call Zuma and other world leaders to
account? How did the municipality get away with using public funds to
rent an ANC crowd of their own?
In other words, we activists felt that we were sold out by the very NGOs
that claim to represent our interests. As INCITE's ‘The Revolution Will
Not Be Funded’ shows, NGOs have no structural accountability to their
so-called beneficiaries. They are externally funded organisations that,
like the World Bank, are accountable to outside forces through the power
of the purse.
We who feel that another (more just) world is necessary should then look
toward the unfunded revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt or the Occupy
Movement for reference. We need to support community self-organising and
accept community driven agendas and philosophies. This does not need
millions in funding. But it does need painstaking perseverance and
commitment to radical democratic politics. In other words, a commitment
to building authentic peoples spaces.
ON THE CLIMATE BUS PART TWO
On the road back to Cape Town, the one bus broke down twice while the
other’s tire burst. In Colesburg the bus drivers purposely left dozens
of activists stranded until those of us still onboard forced the buses
to turn back to get them. After spending another 30 hours on the return
bus, we finally arrived at the Alternative Information Development
Centre (AIDC) in Cape Town at 23h30. However, half of us were stuck once
again; someone forgot to organise taxis home.
Because we could not find the C17 representatives who were in charge of organising transport, we could not fix the situation.
Even something as simple as a bus trip becomes a struggle when we as participants have no say.