Reflections on youth and racism 20 years later

By Time of article published Aug 3, 2021

Share this article:

By Abbey Makoe

IN September 2001 the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) took place in Durban to deal with the scourge of the socio-economic and political nuisance.

The venue was not coincidental. South Africa had become a beacon of hope and a global example of how mammoth race relations challenges could be overcome without bloodshed.

Democratic South Africa’s founding father Nelson Mandela – a global icon – spoke at the international conference. Together with Mary Robinson, the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, they posed the following question to conference delegates in the pledge against all forms of racism:

“As a new century begins, we believe each society needs to ask itself certain questions. Is it sufficiently inclusive? Is it non-discriminatory? Are its norms of behaviour based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”

It is maybe 20 years later, yet the questions are more relevant today. Examples of global poverty, racial prejudice and wanton inequality are ubiquitous. Some states evidently pay scant attention to racial inequality, but societies such as South Africa – to its credit – places issues of racial equality to the top of their national agenda.

This was exemplified this week Dr Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), when she hosted a virtual conference under the theme: “Durban+20: Reflections on Youth and Racism Twenty Years Later.”

Just as the Mandela/Robinson pledge highlighted the importance of young people in the determination of the future, for which the youth are future-leaders-in-waiting, Pandor was this week utterly forthright in her call for young people to be affirmed across all spheres of life.

“Together, young and old, we must confront intolerable racial prejudices,” Pandor told the international webinar meeting. “We must strive for a society that is based on human dignity.”

Pandor continued: “We cannot and we shall not rest in our resolve to achieve this. We must build a world in which all people can realise their aspirations.”

Again put emphasis on the youth, Pandor explained: “Young people can and must be at the forefront of the fight against racism. Governments should create enabling conditions for this to be realised.”

Although Pandor delivered a keynote address, Dirco also created space for other influential public commentators to share their views on the thorny subject that is racism together with other related intolerant practices such as xenophobia.

The speakers included Fatima Chohan, the deputy chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission, Malaika Mahlatsi, the firebrand author and youth activist, Abigail Noko, head of the regional office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Professor Adekeye Adebayo of the University of Johannesburg. Also on the panel of speakers were Tendayi Achiume, the Special Rappoteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and currently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Mahlatsi spoke passionately about SA’s racial inequality. She says she was only nine years old when the Durban conference took place. Like millions of young people, she is classified as a born-free yet her lived experience is such that she has to face the same challenges of racial inequality that her parents faced. “The truth is, poverty and unemployment have a human face.” She said about governments: “If there is no political will not much will change.”

The SAHRC’s Chohan said over the past 12 years “equality complaints” and “race-based” have been the highest. What should be done? she asked.

Prof Adebajo said: “We meet here today because we are determined to ensure that no one suffers because of the colour of their skin.”

Twenty years ago I attended the Durban conference. In fact, I was a panellist together ith Zimbabwean media mogul Trevor Mncube and African-American actor Danny Glover, discussing racism in the media and across society.

And, as this week’s conference sought to reflect on contemporary challenges facing particularly young people globally, and how they can be empowered to become agents of change, my mind raced to the subdued notion of “we’ve been here before”.

Doesn’t familiarity breed indifference? I wondered. But then again, what good does silence do to the abominable scourge of racial prejudice? It is indeed wise, therefore, that the Government through Dirco set time aside to reflect on this epoch moment in history when the world converged into Durban to hear Madiba and Robinson, in a joint pledge, mobilise the world to adopt what later came to be known as the Durban Declaration of a Programme of Action.

It reads: “The programme urges States to encourage the full and active participation of, as well as involve more closely, youth in elaboration, planning and implementation of activities to fight racism and related intolerance and calls upon States, in partnership with non-governmental organisations and other sectors of society, to facilitate both national and international youth dialogue on racism … through the World Youth Forum of the UN system and through the use of new technologies, exchanges and other means.”

The common theme through all inputs made was the need for governments to create enabling environments for the youth to be allowed to dream and flourish. Minister Pandor assured dozens of young people who attended the conference this week that Dirco will continue to interact with the youth and other stakeholders in ensuring the co-operation and buy-in in the country’s public diplomacy.

In September, the UN General Assembly has planned a one-day high-level meeting to commemorate the 20th year of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. This will be at the level of heads of state and government.

It was a wise move by Pandor and Dirco to host this week’s conference. Not because there was a lot to gloat about, but mainly because there was so much displeasure that participants wanted and were allowed to raise.

Share this article: