by Benjamin Fogel, Mahala
COP 17 drags on. Everybody would rather be somewhere else. When last
Saturday’s protest march of around 10,000 people reached Durban’s ICC,
the venue of the UN environmental conference, suits rushed out with
iphones and blackberries. They seemed desperate to escape the boredom
inside for a little local singing and dancing. Some delegates even
pushed past mounted police to join the protest. The media was out en masse too. There were bored German, Russian and US TV crews alongside indie media like Democracy Now, with Amy Goodman in the flesh.
What struck me most is the overwhelming NGO presence. Liberal NGOs like WWF and Greenpeace alongside the admirable 350.org,
recently responsible for blocking the keystone pipeline between Canada
and the United States, as well as several local social movements, Abahlali baseMjondolo
and local COSATU branches. Before the big march last weekend, COSATU
promised 65 bus loads of people but only several hundred from the
National Union of Mine Workers and the Union of Municipal workers
actually showed up.
I will got out on a limb and declare the protest a complete failure.
It was a feel-good ritual designed to placate the democratic conscience
of the media. Maybe even a sideshow to cheer what’s left of the
delegates souls. As much as it was an incredible feeling being part of a
such a large scale protest, it did nothing to interrupt the seamless
transition to planetary destruction. Fully paid up elites don’t notice
memorandums and marches. If they did there would be genuine commitment
to solving the environmental crisis. It would be treated like the
planetary emergency it is. Which it isn’t.
The march was even listed as part of the COP17 official schedule
available to all who visit the minimalist Eco-friendly corporate expo
abutting the ICC building. It’s set up so corporations can ‘greenwash’
their images in the Durban sunshine. You can sit outside at rustic
wooden tables and drink solar powered cappucino. Local businesses are
trying to get in on the action. Florida Road is the ideal setting for
the solar powered cappucino scam. You can find it all over Durban’s
premiere dining strip. Along with Christmas lights and regular coffee.
Delegates might prefer getting drunk on exorbitant craft beer within the
walled off Durban “Green Zone” while toasting the future success of
“Green Capitalism”. For the less distracted, it’s hard to ignore the
tilt and glide of cctv surveillance systems monitoring every movement or
the riot police outside.
Back at the conference, South Africa’s Foreign Minister, Maita
Nkoana-Mashabane, gave a truly forgettable speech. The only surprising
thing about it was that she didn’t receive any audible booing. There was
even lukewarm applause from the NGO types. Alex Lenferna, on the shadow
team of the official SA negotiation team, later told me they were
shooting for “complete neutrality” on all the important issues. Just
what’s needed right now as the planet heats up inexorably. Even a COSATU
leader privately acknowledged there was a lack of working class or even
civil society presence on the official negotiating team. Although both
COSATU leaders I spoke to were loathe to criticize the government’s
negligible response to climate change.
Then the person Business Day described as “the affable Costa Rican” –
the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate
Change, Christiana Figueres, gave us a master class in empty rhetoric.
She stood atop a media truck and told us a folksy yarn that began with
schoolchildren and ended with her urging us all “to do more and then do
more again”. Lukewarm applause except for some enthusiastic Greenpeace
folk at the front. Applauding the very people fucking over the planet
with dumb wasteful shows like COP17 designed to put off real action on
climate change, environmental destruction and pollution with
predetermined impasses. You can hear air conditioning units hum outside
the compound, sparing insiders the Durban humidity.
So vague feel-good rhetoric prevails at COP 17. A passive acceptance
of the status quo. Sitting there I wanted us to chase them back to their
fortified compound, charge the gates Bolshevik style, and, at the very
least, occupy the minimalist Corporate Expo center. Last Saturday, the
protest reached North Beach where a woman seized the loud hailer and
told us to “occupy” the space, an officially sanctioned grass bank about
a kilometer from the conference. The UN even laid on some DJs to spin
tunes. It was utterly sickening.
Clearly protests have been institutionalized and defanged at big
events like this. They are empty rituals for the world’s media to paint a
scenario of democratic inclusion and vibrancy while our collective
future hangs in the balance. Getting permission to Occupy something, to a
soundtrack, isn’t what the Global revolt of 2011 is about.
Institutionalized dissent on this scale is disheartening. It diminishes
radical potential. That alone plays into the hands of an increasingly
authoritarian ANC who want COP17 to be another safe little showcase for
their willingness to comply with global elites.
*All images © Dave Durbach.