Thursday, December 8, 2011
Ever since Saturday’s Global Day of Action at COP17, it’s been apparent that there are some people wearing the green uniforms of Host City Volunteers who are not quite the innocent volunteers they seem. Activists have taken to calling them the Green Bombers, and I had a taste of them today at Durban’s City Hall.
I’d joined a very small group of angry people who were staging a spur-of-the-moment protest outside City Hall, where President Jacob Zuma was addressing a meeting. There’d been talk that the Kyoto Protocol was dead, and the so-called Durban Mandate would take its place, which activists feel is a very unsatisfactory result. When we arrived, the two people carrying banners reading ‘Africa will burn’ and ‘Blood on your hands’ were immediately accosted by the Green Bombers and told “You can’t be here”. A journalist from Montreal came to their rescue, getting indignant about the infringement on people’s rights.
In addition to the small group I’d linked up with, there were a number of people from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, and the contingent of aggressive Green Bombers got to work, trying to clear them from the public space as well. (I asked one to tell me what regulations he was operating under. His response was, “Lady, I don’t know, I’m just following orders from security.” Cops in riot gear were spread out across the entrance to City Hall, and the police and Green Bombers communicated with each other frequently.
‘My’ banner holders painted their palms with red paint to symbolise the ‘blood on our hands’, and the fashion soon spread across the square. To our amazement, the Green Bombers refused to let anyone with painted hands into the City Hall to attend the meeting. It would, explained one man to me, “make people excitable” inside.
As I listened in on one woman argue with the Bombers, I heard him say that he was with intelligence. Naturally, I trotted over and asked him to repeat this and explain. He said, “Of what value would it be to you to know?”
“I think it would be of great interest to the citizens of South Africa to know that their intelligence officers were dressing up in UN Host City Volunteer outfits.”
At that, I was subjected to a tirade about “you journalists”; that wonderful pejorative, ‘opportunistic’ was used, as I began to walk away. I turned and charged back, asking the user to explain exactly what ‘opportunistic’ means. Apparently it means people like me, who listen for something they can use that’s sensational, “even a joke like this”, and then write “stories without content”.
“Why don’t you simply tell the media the truth?” I asked. “When I asked about the comment, why did you not just say it was a joke?”
“You, you represent a noble profession which has lost all its morals,” I was told, along with much more about how I write such stories simply to make lots of money and the like. All the time, the aggression was palpable and the sense that one wrong move would provoke some kind of threat, at the least.
Shortly after this, a very angry man burst out of City Hall, waving a small poster. He and the young woman who followed him out were enraged that they had been thrown out of the meeting for silently and peacefully holding up posters. They melded with the protesters outside, and some very loud and angry chants of Panzi followed (Panzi means ‘Down with’ and is always repeated, as in “Panzi Canada, panzi!”). We had Panzi Zuma, Panzi the USA and EU, Panzi COP17 – and, from the angry young woman, “Panzi people who dress up in uniforms and pretend to be volunteers, but are getting paid by who knows who, panzi!” (That’s a loose translation given to me by a fellow journalist.)
After two hours at the protest, I moved on to the exhibition next to the UN precinct for an interview with singer-songwriter Robby Romero, United Nations Ambassador of Youth for the Environment (more on that later – but to hear some of his music, go to http://eaglethunder.com , it’s good stuff). It was quite a bizarre contrast to move from a group of people so impassioned, so engaged and angry to the smooth, slick environs of what is, really, a sophisticated trade show showcasing mining houses, petrochemical companies and a certain famous soft drink… “Civil society has bought into the life of convenience,” said Romero. “While we don’t hgave to give up everything, the Age of Convenience has to be checked. We need to follow ‘No Harm’ policies.” Once, he said, humans were caretakers of the earth, and they have to become caretakers again, caretakers who are connected to each other and the planet.
Looking around at the ‘business-as-usual’ expo, he said, “As the climate changes, we need to change, too.”
9 December: Update
Since writing this, I've discovered that my sense of physical threat from the Green Bombers was accurate. Inside the hall, activists were slapped, punched, kocked down and kicked by them.
Timeslive, 8 Dcember:
''Volunteers'' employed by the city of Durban at COP17 yesterday slapped and kicked environmental activists who confronted President Jacob Zuma for not standing up for Africa at the climate change talks.
The heavy-handed actions of the "green bombers" - so called by activists because of their green uniforms and aggression - and of unionists, who kicked an activist, were in full view of the world's media.
After Zuma had told the activists at a report-back session in the Durban City Hall that he felt that it was necessary for him to interact with civil society, pandemonium broke out when placards calling on him to "ditch Europe and the US" and not "let Africa fry" were held up.
The volunteers and Zuma's bodyguards pulled the placards from the activists and tore them up.
When the activists demanded that they be allowed to hold up their placards as part of their interaction with Zuma, the volunteers pushed and slapped them while trying to throw them out of the hall. A group of people, wearing SA Municipal Workers' Union T-shirts, then started singing in support of Zuma.
Zuma did not intervene in the scuffle but had a clear view of the assault on local climate activist Rehad Desai, who was slapped by a volunteer and then pushed to the ground when he called for the president to stand up for Africa.
After Desai fell, the unionists formed a ring around him and kicked him as they sang.
Moe Shaik, the head of the Secret Service, and Cosatu's KwaZulu-Natal secretary, Zet Luzipho, tried to stop the chaos by pushing the volunteers away but the group continued to kick Desai.
After KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, the programme director, repeatedly called for calm police broke up the scuffles.
Desai and several other activists were thrown out but the volunteers, who started the trouble, remained. No arrests were made.
The meeting continued with Zuma denouncing the chaos as "uncalled for".
"I don't agree with people who disrupt and loot in the name of democracy," he said. "We must tolerate other people's views."
But the activists slammed Zuma, saying he did nothing to protect their rights.
"He just sat there and did nothing. It happened right in front of him," Siziwe Khanyile, of South African environmental group Groundwork, said.
Desai said he was kicked for raising his concerns about speculation that Zuma was planning to side with the EU during the climate negotiations.
He said he had it on good authority that the ''green bombers'' were members of the ANC Youth League, employed by outgoing Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe to intimidate activists at COP17.
eThekwini municipal spokesman Thabo Mofokeng confirmed that COP17 volunteers were hired and paid by the city, but he rubbished claims that they were told to intimidate activists.
Sutcliffe said the volunteers did not initiate the scuffle.
"The meeting, which was progressing positively, was interrupted by a small group of protestors who chose the opportunity to attempt to disrupt proceedings by raising posters while their own representatives were engaging with the president.
"After a few minutes of disruption, members of the audience tried to get the protestors to take down their posters and allow the proceedings to continue. The situation escalated and a scuffle broke out between protestors and the audience. Security, both SAPS and municipal, became involved and then a few COP17 volunteers, who were standing close by, were drawn into the fray," he said.
The secretary of the ANC Youth League's eThekwini region, Vukani Ndlovu, dismissed the suggestion that the volunteers were recruited from the league, saying they were "just youth".
Activists claim Zuma supporters attacked them
Tensions between local left activists at COP17 in Durban and the government exploded again today with activists claiming they were assaulted by “a group of pro-Zuma supporters” at a meeting with President Jacob Zuma.
“In a meeting designed for engagement between President Zuma and communities and civil society, violence broke out when peaceful civil society demonstrators silently held up signs asking ‘Zuma to stand with Africa,’” said Tristen Taylor from Earthlife Africa.
He said the “pro-Zuma supporters”, many wearing the uniforms of COP17 volunteers then attacked the demonstrators “in an act of mob violence”.
“Demonstrators were roughed up and some had to flee the hall,” he said. “While all of this went on, President Zuma sat up on the podium and remained quiet. Furthermore, it took nearly ten minutes before police entered the hall to restore order.”
Greenpeace activists were also caught in the fistfight. Greenpeace activist Melita Steele was injured. She tweeted: People attacked in the meeting for protesting. I ended up getting punched and other people were kicked.
Her colleague, Ferial Adams, told Eyewitness News that youths started singing and toyi-toying before they were joined by a group of ANC supporters, dressed as COP17 marshals, who then attacked the activists.
Adams was also punched and kicked by the crowd.
Siziwe Khanyile of groundWork said: “This was our event, organised to communicate with President Zuma. We were then abused, kicked out, robbed, and manhandled by Zuma supporters disguised as COP17 volunteers.”
The latest incident follows violence over the weekend where activists were attacked by a group of COP17 volunteers, also dressed in their bright green uniform.
The “green bombers” as they were dubbed by the activists roughed up the green activists and pelted them with stones over the weekend at the Day of Global Action march.
Before COP17 the leftist activists also complained that they were closely being watched by both National Intelligence and the police’s crime intelligence.
Zuma’s office would not say how the president reacted during the scuffle, reports Sabelo Ndlangisa.
In a statement, Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, said there had been “an unfortunate scuffle at the beginning of the meeting” with groups jostling to be heard.
“The Presidency acknowledges the intervention of the police who did their jobs to restore order in the Durban City Hall. The meeting continued successfully and constructively with civil society afterwards,” Maharaj said.
Spokesperson for the police, General Vish Naidoo, confirmed the altercation, but denied that it took place directly in front of Zuma.
"There was a difference of opinion and police intervened," he said. "The situation was resolved and normalised immediately."
He said he was informed the fight was between COP17 volunteers and NGOs. No one was arrested.