Obsessed with security and status

2011-12-16 00:00

ON what was officially the last day of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) in Durban, Friday, December 9, a couple of hundred delegates representing NGOs such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, 350.org and groundWork protested in the corridors of the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre demanding entry to the plenary sessions. This was against the rules and UN security personnel moved in immediately. What happened provided an instructive contrast to what occurred the day before at the city hall.

There President Jacob Zuma met with civil society representatives to hear their views on COP17. As well as representatives of the same NGOs that would later protest at the ICC, there was also a substantial turnout of Cosatu and South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) members. Early on in the proceedings, noise from the gallery saw everyone downstairs turn around to see what was going on. There were a number of protesters standing displaying posters, one of which read “Zuma stand with Africa not USA”, who were being pounced on by green-clad COP17 city volunteers and hustled from the gallery.

At this point, down in the auditorium, Ferrial Adam of Greenpeace Africa stood up and displayed a poster saying “Stand with Africa, say no to Durban mandate”. This poster was grabbed by a COP volunteer who crumpled it up. Matters quickly escalated. Posters being prepared for use outside the venue were taken from Samantha Hargreaves of ActionAid, while Cosatu and Samwu members, angry, presumably at what they perceived as disrespect for Zuma, got involved. Things were beginning to get physical and Rihad Desai of the Democratic Action Front intervened to protect the women. He was punched and spat at. While all this was going on, police in the hall did nothing. Then city hall security intervened and all three were taken out of the building.

When the city volunteers first began grabbing posters in the gallery an African diplomat sitting in front of me remarked: “Those people are totally overreacting.” He was right. But why did they overreact? During COP17, I chatted to several of these volunteers who were on hand everywhere to assist delegates, give directions and run around with microphones at press conferences. They were mainly students on a vac job or people otherwise unemployed. They were not security personnel and they didn’t know what to do. They did the wrong thing, they intervened. The result was chaos and it was lucky nobody was killed.

At COP17, the singing demonstrators were cordoned off by UN security personnel while an official entered into negotiations with them. He made it clear that they must stop demonstrating or be escorted from the building and have their accreditation to the conference revoked. The UN security officials then asked them to leave in small groups, escorting three or four people away at a time. Two who refused to leave, were physically carried from the building. The whole process took two hours. Nobody got hurt and nobody’s civil rights were abused.

The UN security personnel were about as ubiquitous as the volunteers at COP17 and despite being armed with guns and riot sticks gave off a relaxed air — you felt they were there to help, that you were not the enemy.

That confident no-fuss air extended to the VIPs. While walking the corridors, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had an unobtrusive plain-clothes security guard; executive secretary, Secretariat of UNFCCC, Christina Figueres had none at all.

Similarly, other heads of state, ministers and delegates. Which begs the question: what’s with us South Africans? When Zuma arrived at the Momentum for Change launch at COP17 everything was delayed while the venue was checked by his security and when he finally entered it was with a brigade of shiny suited sumo-wrestlers. It was the same at the city hall.

At press conferences, South African cabinet ministers were noticeably short on conviviality and heavy on protocol. And each came with a retinue of ministers’ little helpers ready to adjust microphones, pour water or just sit there doing nothing. The EU, the U.S., indeed, everyone else, was happy with one press liaison officer.

Our elite seems to have an obsession with status that expresses itself in overextended security. Just who are these public servants afraid of? Take a cue from the UN. You can be elite and discreet at the same time.

* Quote of the conference (from a Bolivian delegate regarding the financing of the Green Climate Fund): “They can find $228 billion to bail out the Greeks but they can’t find $100 billion to bail out the planet.”

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