South Africa Journal: SANPAD Conference

Posted January 9, 2008

Last summer, I traveled to South Africa to do some academic research related to health care. To keep myself busy and record my experience, I kept up a private blog for family and friends. Now that Solidarity has its own weblog(!), I’m sharing some of these old posts. I intend to follow up with some more current analysis on South Africa and the themes my trip got me thinking about. This post, is a description of my experience at the SANPAD conference in Durban on June 26th-30th, 2007.

For the last two days, I’ve been attending the SANPAD poverty conference here in Durban. It’s an interesting collection of socialist and other radical intellectuals and more traditional NGO and government types. The first day of the conference was interrupted by protests of dozens of ‘poors’ demanding to be able to confront the deputy mayor, one of the conference’s opening speakers over issues of 1) closure of the Durban port to individual fisherman, 2)police harassment of street vendors 3) sanitation, electricity and water in the informal settlements.

Inside, we had a cultural show with a smoke machine and a multiracial rainbow doing contemporary dance based in Zulu “tradition”; outside were toyi-toying, chanting, sarcastic poors. I decided to leave the conference room and go to where the real action was, outside. Some of the conference organizers tried to tell me I couldn’t leave the conference room–“I didn’t want to go out there”, according to them. I argued that the meeting room didn’t have a bathroom and that it was an emergency. After seven minutes of arguing, the lady relented and released me out into the demo. I tried to hold the door open, but she was bigger than me.

Ashwin Desai, whose book I previously reviewed, was a conference organizer and the mediator between the protesters and the event. Among the demonstration leaders were individuals recognizable from his book. He got flustered (and told someone to “fuck off”), but did get the deputy mayor to come out to be shouted at. Dozens of police arrived, called by the manager of the posh Elangeni hotel, and stood around while Desai tried to convince them that the thing could be negotiated without military interference.

At first I thought it was a bit embarrassing – Desai should have just invited his friends to dinner! Today I realized that 20% of the protest is here at the conference for free, still causing trouble. What the protest did was set the terms of the rest of the week, and force the policy people to deal first and foremost with the complaints of real, live, loud, inconvenient, thoughtful, angry poor people.