Johannesburg -- From 10,000 kilometres in the air, southern Africa's dried-up riverbeds loop through arid plains and sandy dust bowls. The land below looks like a desert until you notice the crisscrossing lines of patchwork farmland that borders the bends and mountains. The plane is not flying over the Kalahari, but over parched rural villages. The rains have failed in this part of Africa, the politicians and global institutions have failed, and the people are starving. From this height, of course, you can't see them.
On the ground, in Sandton, a hyper-rich Johannesburg suburb, more than 40,000 delegates have arrived for the Earth Summit, and the usual accoutrements of power and consumption are in evidence: Gucci boutiques, BMW and De Beers promotions, 32 medical centres. In Alexandra, just a few miles down the road, where 350,000 people live in tin shacks, there are only eight.
But there are no giant puppets or demonstrators in white overalls here to greet the world's powerful. Internal wrangling among the anti-summit forces has prevented an international mobilization from taking place. Instead, the protest will be led by the very groups the movement has always purported to represent -- the landless, jobless and homeless themselves.
The main players all have real social constituencies and real grievances, and when the going gets tough they're all really inclined to denounce each other.
The township-based Social Movements Indaba (SMI) is led by the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) and Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC). Together, they have organized successful water and electricity non-payment and reconnection campaigns in Soweto and Alexandra.
Then there's the rural-based Landless Peoples Forum (LPM), a movement of the homeless that has led successful occupations of land and buildings, re-housing thousands. Its culture is spontaneous, its meetings are infectious, and its leadership is allied with Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.
Hostile to both these groups is the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which is now pursuing a New Economic Partnership of African Development (Nepad), relying on partial and full-blown privatization programs. Despite being heir to the anti-apartheid struggle, the ANC banned the APF from marching through Alexandra. Only after intense international pressure did it relent and allow the "unofficial" protest to occur.
All three groups have organized separate marches for Saturday.
The antagonism between these groups can be rancorous. Mzongke Mayekiso (brother of former anti-apartheid activist Moses Mayekiso) tells me he's ditched the APF for the ANC because he can no longer support illegal resistance -- reconnecting electricity or banned marches.
APF activists use the opposite argument against the LPM, that they've sold out by accepting a government-approved march. The LPM's controversial championing of Robert Mugabe is just the icing on the cake.***
In Soweto, 15 minutes southwest of Johannesburg, the confusion of such wranglings is apparent in the words of Bobo, a young man in a black woolly hat and scruffy T-shirt, who illegally reconnects electricity and water to the homes of people whose supplies have been cut off. Bobo has always been a SECC activist, but he's also a squatter -- he lives in a camp in Dlamina and he's switching sides along with the currents.
"I'll go on the Landless Peoples march because I want to see how it is with them," he says. But he doesn't support land reform Harare-style."The LPM thinks that African land should be used by Africans, not by white farmers who're exploiting people," he tells me. "But sometimes chasing people is not good for you. Sometimes you can become an exploiter yourself.
"The march of the landless is about something else, about land and rights that are being denied. These people are being moved from shack to shack. Some are teenage parents; their kids can't attend schools. They're unemployed and don't have rights to medical clinics. They're suffering a new form of apartheid."
A couple of miles up the road, if ignorance is bliss, Sandton is having multiple orgasms. The delegates discussing homelessness are housed in rooms costing up to 2,000 (about $4,850 Canadian) a night. While they debate a famine threatening 14 million Africans, they're dining from hotel menus that include such delights as pan-fried crayfish ravioli, plum-glazed duck breast and crocodile carpaccio.
Desmond Malcolm, a chef at the Michael Angelo Hotel where many are staying, tells me, "People underestimate the power of food. A good meal can lead a world leader to make a decision that will change the course of history."
But history is not exactly being made in Sandton; double-speak is. While the U.S. has threatened to withdraw food aid from countries that won't accept genetically modified maize, Malcolm confirms that U.S. delegates will not be eating any GM vegetables at the Michael Angelo.***
Share World is what protestors call their out-of-town convergence centre near Soweto. It's actually a squat in a palatial and highly unreal complex. It was built under apartheid as a mock-Spanish "coloured people's" theme park, all blue-and-white porticos, wooden verandas and spiral staircases. The ANC then sold it to a film studio, which went bust. And it was squatted by the LPM. History turned into theme park turned into commodity reclaimed by history -- with a vengeance.Spirits are exuberant. The LPM's media coordinator, Anna Eveleth, a white American, has just been released from a 10-day prison sentence after she was arrested at a pre-summit demo along with 87 others last week.
"Amandla (power)! Ngowetu (to the people)!" she shouts. The audience replies. Spontaneous song and dance erupts, and the marchers carry her triumphantly on their shoulders as they stomp down Share World's cobbled streets, doing the toye-toye township dance. I notice a ragged-trousered man who's scrawled the words "There's no place like home" on a cardboard placard. He's holding it aloft like a score card.
Canadian journalists Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis are supposed to be giving a talk on the media here, but in all the excitement over Eveleth's release they've deferred out of respect. Lewis is effusive about the occupation: "Share World is a merger of celebration and resistance," he tells me. "It's a beautiful and autonomous space where people who've been pushed off their land can reclaim it creatively."
Share World is entrancing, a fantastical dream. But behind the scenes a bitter power struggle is being played out in the LPM over support for Mugabe, and out front the toilets are a mess and there's no heating. The days are unseasonably warm, but the nights are freezing. Landless people walk around the site wrapped in blankets while white South African and European activists look on; they fine-tune non-hierarchical hierarchies, discuss political theory with the enthusiasm of undergrads and try to steal a march on each other.
Ten minutes down the road, the NGOs that didn't make it onto the Sandton guest list are gathered in the prefab Nasrec complex. If the United Colors of Benetton did political conferences, they'd look something like Nasrec: African dance troupes and a Jewish Sukkah for peace. There's even a militant demonstration calling for Portuguese to be made an official UN language.
But "it's the only time most of these people will come anywhere near Soweto," Bongani, an APF activist, says. Up to 60 per cent of the township is unemployed, and as many as one in three have HIV/AIDS. The poverty is wrenching.
We slowly drive around the streets of Nanaledi, a district in Soweto, with a megaphone strapped to the car roof, two activists in the back, around 30,000 leaflets to hand out as we go. Bongani is announcing plans for the next day's demo, and everyone, it seems, wants a read. Bongani's address is hypnotic, and every so often he throws in an "Away, George Bush, away!" or "Shut down, Sandton, shut down!" in English. The township kids love it and rush to grab leaflets as though they were comic books.
As we stop at one corner, Silas Motsepe, a 67-year-old war veteran, comes over to complain that people on his street are still waiting for their APF membership cards.
I ask him what he thinks of the summit. "It's highway robbery," he says, "window dressing. They're just trying to bluff the people."
While support for Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe has split the APF and LPM, the issue of non-cooperation with the summit has divided them both from the ANC. The ANC argues that partnership with Western governments and transnational corporations will alleviate poverty and eco-damage. The APF says such partnerships caused the problems in the first place. At least the APF and LPM have decided to march together.
So as Saturday dawns, we are on the outskirts of Alexandra's dusty arteries, three or four thousand protestors -- APF, LPM, NGOs, Palestinians -- all bouncing up the road, singing exuberant songs in Xhosa and Zulu. Thousands upon thousands of people are sprinting from the townships' mazes of tin, brick and sewage to join us.
"We need so many things," says Yolanda Mabedikama as she merges with the demo. "Houses, electricity, water. We need the government to see that we're strong."
"Look at how we are living!" Sofie Tlabakou demands, pointing at her shack made of corrugated tin. "There are no jobs, there's no food in the home, my baby is crying and the roof is leaking. It's collected so much water it could fall in any time. This is why we support the protest. Please tell our story."
In Alexandra stadium, fewer than 5,000 people have turned up to hear President Thabo Mbeki address the ANC rally. Outside, a forest of red-and- yellow flags is gently swaying, and melodious township songs are belted out as the LPM leads a stomping toye-toye dance.
"We are fighting for this country, because it's governed by stupidity," one group sings. "This is how we protest," another group harmonizes. "If we get angry, we know how to shoot, too." By now the crowd must be 20,000 strong -- the vast majority from Alexandra.
Ethan, a Canadian student on his first African protest, thinks that "in the South, people are doing this because they have to, just to keep their heads above water. In some ways, it's more interesting that people in the North will go on demonstrations that they don't actually benefit from."
As we approach the Sandton complex, I ask Neo, a local VJ, whether summit protests of the local or international variety ever achieve their objectives. He's cool on the point. "It's not whether it achieves anything. It's that we're making a statement. We're not twisting Bush's arm. We're just exercising our voice -- and we're all on the same page."
Maybe so, but we're not necessarily reading the same bits. At the final rally outside the conference centre, an LPM spokesperson takes the stage to lead a shout of "Viva Robert Mugabe! Viva!" and the crowd's carefully stitched unity begins to rend.
A reply by the APF's implacable leader, Trevor Ngwane, is delivered to thunderous applause. "While we are happy to have unity with the landless, we respectfully disagree on the matter of Mugabe. He is a dictator and he has killed many Zimbabweans!"
A government minister, Essop Pahad, is sent down to receive a protestors' memo but is heckled off the stage, and the end of the protest is strangely muted. The marchers begin to drift back toward their apartheid-era townships. The cameras head back to the summit.