Johannesburg 2002. Our city has become a brand, a name that may be said with the same scorn poured on Rio ten years down the line when all the promises have been broken. This is not the Johannesburg I know. Two weeks before the delegates jetted in (depositing a few tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere and then refusing to help clean it up) our streets were cleaned, our lights repaired and our city was safe at night with cops crawling all over Newtown. Downtown was done up like an art gallery.
Now that they’ve shown they can do it, our city mothers are going to have to have a hard time convincing us that they don’t have the resources to run this place properly. They even paved the Yeoville park, just like that one day it was an ugly dustbowl full of drunks and the next day it was paved and clean and almost pretty.
South Africa is doing exceptionally well out of this, give or take a few hiccups. (Three days before the summit started Rehad Desai was arrested in town and pictures of him screaming “I’m the media” were beamed around the world.) Government claims that eight billion rand was injected into the economy, as if the summit was a huge intravenous cash conduit, with each delegate offloading loads of foreign exchange. The homestay project was a flop and all those redecorated B&B’s stood forlornly empty.
Don’t ask me what the delegates spent their money on, but some of them did find the venue – that ghastly shrine to capitalism called Sandton City – a little off-putting. On the first few days there’s a snake of delegates curling through the subterranean passages of the mall, poor things, they are forced to window shop as they wait for their tags. Many of them will not remove the tags until they get mouldy and fall off many months later, I suspect. The tag is the thing. The X-ray machine is another. After my bag has been X-rayed 167 times in seven days I refuse to eat anything that has been inside it. I put my hand inside to see if I can see my bones.
After the much publicised arrest of Desai, some of us worried that our cops would mess it up, that people would get shot, that the world would see crusty Canadian kids being bludgeoned by the South African Police.
Should we be so lucky.
I saw no evidence of the crusties I had been expecting to conduct peaceful sit-ins up and down Oxford Road, or the laptop toting Canadians who I thought would move into the city and shake it up. I did see a few Americans with buttons that said Bush did not speak for them. Just as well that Bush was saying nothing about the summit. Too busy organising a war, I suppose.
“Where are the guys who went mad in Genoa?” I ask an Italian friend. He laughs the way only Italians can, snorting and choking, “You think they’re going to travel to South Africa to protest? Ha ha ha. You have to do that yourselves.”
The printers whirr and whirr. It is the day of the document and I am drowning in press releases and information. Teevee girls stand-up breathlessly telling us how many trees are being chopped up to keep us all informed. Nothing makes sense anymore.
There’s big deal-making going down. While Greenpeace is getting fined for climbing Koeberg they are meeting with the Global Business Forum to reach compromise. Openly the EU is supporting human rights and renewable energy targets. Behind the scenes they are meeting with the US to cut trade deals.
Everything happens late at night, in hotel rooms and corridors, and by day the press gets given miles of innocuous press release to turn to story. All those people (25,000 passing in and out) in a building that can only hold 7,000 at any one time. There’s a lot of energy and intent flying around in that air. The press centre stinks by late afternoon, sweat and stinky journalist breathe. That’s when I am up to eyes in things to tell my seniors. It’s futile that feverish typing I do because they never use it.
The media, as usual, is taking a lot of photographs of itself because there is nothing to see besides many military uniforms and other national costumes. It is, every now and then, a very colourful slipstream of the world’s people, if it weren’t for all the bad suits from the second world it could almost be futuristic. Instead it’s impersonal and expensive like an airport.
Language is the single most contentious issue. The summit started with 85% of the text agreed, in the end it’s all about the words and the wording because that will determine where the loopholes lie. Single words and phrases can hold things up indefinitely. I feel like adopting a ‘home language’ that is not the stuff of multilateral agreements on common but differentiated responsibilities.
South Africa had soothing words for everyone and our government ministers behaved, for the most part, like they were putting on a fucking picnic. Ministers like Valli Moosa had me feeling patriotic for brief snatches but unfortunately the daily South African press briefings were led by Mbeki’s induna Essop Pahad. At the ANC rally Mbeki said he would receive the message of the marchers at the so-called speaker’s corner, a forlorn platform that rarely got action. But the president slipped back into fortress Sandton and sent the hapless Pahad out to get boo-ed and hissed by the bored marchers. Oom Essop is one of those politicians who believes that humour (self-deprecating Madiba style) will save all days. He doesn’t have the humility though and comes across as toady.
I was also sent to cover the starchy EU briefings every morning at the Balalaika hotel with pastries, coffee and orange juice. I wolfed it down but I took their words less seriously than their food. They’re very smug – constantly pointing out how much money they give the world, the same world that feeds their gymed bodies. Their secretaries go to tanning parlours and wear knee length skirts. They are very serious and pompous.
They threatened to walk out if Zuma didn’t take the whole thing to a political level and kept banging on about how the rich must lead the way.
“Does being rich qualify you to lead?” I asked. Next Question.
For a week I peer between the throngs looking for interesting people, there are 25,000 people milling around, there must be a handful of weirdoes. As the summit winds down the female journalists begin to appear in sundresses. They are all off to Kruger Park or Cape Town when all this is over. Where’s the sexiness I ask, where’s the integrity I wail. I get sent to cover Jane Goodalls’s address at the Global People’s Forum where there is the smell of incense and a sense of urgency. I meet the leader of the indigenous people of Greenland. I am bowled over by him, by his intense eyes and his grey hair and his big old drum. You know when you’re in the presence of a wise man. It was him who convinced the UN to do something about the melting ice with a passionate plea to the General Assembly. 15 years later nothing has changed and women in Greenland cannot breast-feed their babies because of all the toxins and pollutants that end up there from the greedy developed world. “Now I have decided that I have to melt the ice in the human heart,” he says with a mixture of sadness and hope.
He makes me feel my heartbeat in his drum and hugs me with such love that I am determined to do something about the melting ice. Until I work out what I’ll do about the ice I pour whisky over it every night and then I stumble out of Sandton, my head reeling from so many words on so many papers.
When I’m not too exhausted I go to Newtown at night to the Supper Club which is operating out of the workers library building, hired for the duration by an anti-globalisation ngo. It’s comforting to hear young things with tousled hair discussing Gramsci (they don’t like him, he’s too simplistic) and to get a sense that I’m part of all the stuff happening outside of the gleaming sterile confines of tag land Sandton. I meet up with Gael Reagon who is editing Global Fire, and she says the most passionate thing I hear for the whole of the summit: “This is our last chance to make sense,” she says. She really means it.
I’m standing at the workers library watching some khoisan cabaret and the cops who patrol Newtown come over to look at the performance. This huffy Canadian girl comes over to them and orders them to leave. She’s very aggressive the way we might have been in the eighties and she obviously doesn’t understand that they’re our cops now and that we’re pleased to see them there. She is also obsessed with private property: “We rented this place,” she keeps repeating, as though that makes this little piece of our country her personal fiefdom. The cops blush – she’s humiliated them and they leave like children evicted from a birthday party. “Leave them alone, they just want to watch the show,” I say amicably.
She turns on me: “I’m the press liaison officer here,” she says, “Who the hell are you?”
” I’m the press,” I say.
Nicole Turner is a journalist. She lives in Jozi (email@example.com)