The world arrives, but SA hardly notices

GUMISAI MUTUME 

Durban: (IPS August 31) As more than 113 countries descend on Durban in South Africa's Natal Province for the 12th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), most South Africans are asking ''What's NAM?''

Some 53 Heads of State, five Deputy Presidents or Prime Ministers, and 102 Foreign Ministers have confirmed that they will attend the summit, which begins Saturday and ends Sep. 4, Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad told a media briefing this week.

As many as 3000 delegates are expected at the conference and South Africa will fork out about 10 million U.S. dollars to host it.

But the average South African wonders what all the fuss is about. ''One wonders why our government is wasting money on so many foreign commitments, when there are so many pressing internal problems such as unemployment,'' says unemployed political science student Tamara Jacobs.

Unemployment may not be on NAM's agenda, but the challenge of peace building in a changing world order is high on the priority list of issues to be tackled.

On the continent, the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is threatening to become a regional conflict, is a top item, and the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is expected to meet leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on the DRC crisis. DRC President Laurent Kabila is expected to attend the meeting.

The United States also has been invited as an observer, and its bombings of NAM members Afghanistan and Sudan are sure to be discussed.

NAM was established at a meeting of 25 countries in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in September 1961. Its aim was to bring together countries that were not aligned with neither the Eastern nor the Western bloc. NAM's origins however, date back to a meeting in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955.

South Africans have a right to question what NAM is and what it means to South Africa, says Garth le Pere of the Foundation for Global Dialogue.

 
''This is the first time South Africans are coming in contact with NAM and everyone is on a steep learning curve. Government has not done a very good job on public education,'' says le Pere.

A recurrent question being asked is whether or not the movement has outlived its usefulness.
According to Southern non-governmental groups, which held an NGO summit in Durban (Aug. 19-21) prior to NAM, ''the NAM political agenda is not in the public domain''.

''There is presently no mechanism for civil society organisations to qualitatively participate in NAM processes,'' adds a statement from the Civil Society Conference on the Priorities and Challenges for the Non-Aligned Movement.

NAM, adds the NGOs, is faced with a unipolar strategy aimed at maintaining the hegemony of the North over the South.

While the Cold War has ended, it has resulted in new divisions -- non-tarrif barriers that block products from the South entering the markets of the North, barriers of technology and information that continue to leave behind billions of people in the developing world, and the inequitable distribution of resources in a unipolar world.

When NAM leaders met in Belgrade 37 years ago, their main pre- occupation was the realistic threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The challenge now is the force of globalisation that is relegating the poor in the developing world to an irreversible cycle of poverty.

At the last 1995 NAM summit in Cartagena, Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano said: ''... the Cold War is over, but this fact has not marked the end of poverty in the world. It has not removed the problems of the environment which we face, nor has it put an end to the concerns of our productive sectors.''

An A to Z of NAM members reveals diverse nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, rich, poor, nuclear, non-nuclear, but with a common vision -- to end neo-colonialism, support the integrity of independent countries and to seek a new international economic order.

Their diversity however, has often prevented NAM from following unified strategies to reach their common vision.

The movement has 113 member countries, and 13 observers which include The People's Republic of China and Brazil. Many new members, including former allies of the superpowers, have joined NAM since the fall of the Soviet Union.

South Africa and Eritrea are among Africa's new members. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, created after the break-up of the Soviet Union, also have filled in the membership forms, and so has the former Soviet Union ally, Mongolia.