DURBAN03122011 Climate change march in Durban. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

It was meant to be a rally to highlight civil society’s united demand for action against climate change, but tensions flared as political groups hijacked the Global Day of Action rally through the Durban city centre on Saturday.

Chants of “amandla” (“power” in Zulu) and “amalungelo ethu” (our rights) could be heard inside the International Convention Centre, venue of the COP17 conference as about 5 000 people took to the streets.

While civil society groups, trade unions, faith-based organisations and members of the public rallied against climate change, two political groups used the platform to push their own agendas.

It was a bitter twist to an otherwise peaceful event, which started at about 10am at the bottom of West Street. But shortly after the march began, the ANC Youth League, employed as COP17 volunteers and dressed in green, taunted the Democratic Left Front, a new political movement which carried posters saying “10 more years of Zuma” and sang anti-government songs.

The two groups burnt each other’s posters and fist fights broke out. Riot police had to intervene throughout the march. “The ANCYL are against our march. We are socialists,” said Democratic Left co-ordinator Alan Goatley. “We are a front for many different community organisations and interest groups. We want service delivery. They (the ANCYL) tore our placards and burnt our flags because we chanted anti-government sentiments.”

“I’m in solidarity with everyone here – but not them. They are insulting our president. These are not socialists. They are anarchists hiding as socialists,” said ANCYL KZN official Jomo Sibiya.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi led a group of Clicks workers and union members who demanded a R350 pay rise. Asked what this had to do with climate change, Vavi said: “It’s the right time and place to be discussing this. Jobs and climate change go hand in hand.”

Also part of the crowd was the Right2Know movement, rallying against the Protection of State Information Bill. The National Union of Mineworkers toyi-toyied for more mining jobs, contradicting environmental calls for the end of coal mining. There were also many NGOs and civil society marchers who blew vuvuzelas, calling for climate action.

No one cried at the New Orleans-style funeral procession for “King Coal”, as marchers carried his coffin. Others carried a gigantic inflated black-and-white octopus representing greedy multinational companies.

Durban-born Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace, laughed at how, in 1985, he was arrested during an anti-apartheid march on the same street. He said: “The turnout has been decent but we need much more. This is about the unions, and labour movements, not simply NGOs, because climate change affects everybody. We want the COP17 negotiators to listen to the people, not the polluters. Every year 350 000 people die because of climate change.”

Tasneem Essop, a spokeswoman for WWF International, marched in a black-and-white panda bear T-shirt. “We want to save the Kyoto Protocol. It’s not looking good, but we still have a week. We want the heads of state to be bold.”

However, many delegates say an extension of the protocol, or the signing of a new Durban Protocol, is looking highly unlikely. “COP17 does not represent the voices of the poor. We are here to tell people how we are living in the shacks and how climate change is affecting our lives,” said Bandile Mdlalose, secretary general of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement. “Our shacks have been demolished by the floods.”

Outside the ICC, leaders from each organisation made speeches before their statements were handed to UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres.

Many delegates were in full support. “We are saying a lot of what these protesters are saying. We are in full support because public support is very important,” said a US NGO delegate.

Both UN and ICC security refused to open the gates when the Sunday Tribune asked to leave the premises.

Meanwhile, Sue Bannister, head of the city’s Strategic Projects Unit, said everything had gone “well”. “We’ve had no major problems.” The biggest challenge was caused by the weather.

“Any roof that could leak, did leak. So there were mop-up operations. But those have all been handled,” she said. She didn’t expect problems when state leaders arrived.

– Additional reporting by Matthew Savides - Sunday Tribune