Wearing our brains on our sleeve.
27 May 2017 12:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Philippa Garson

United Nations: Some proudly South African moments

  • Philippa Garson
    Philippa Garson
    Philippa Garson

    Philippa Garson is a freelance journalist and writer living in New York. She covers global development and humanitarian issues for IRIN and also writes about health, drug policy and organised crime. She started out long ago as a trainee reporter at Weekly Mail, where she worked as an investigative and political reporter and then editor of M&G's sister publication, The Teacher. After completing a Fellowship on HIV/AIDS and the Media at Wits Journalism School she moved with her family to New York, a city she loves and hates, depending on the day. She never stops missing home. 

While world leaders were launching the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations (UN) in New York, President Jacob Zuma included, a few other notable South Africans cropped up to infuse the stuffy proceedings with some quintessentially South African traits: bluntness and colour.

Unlike many of the other leaders who droned on about the gains that have been made by the precursors to the SDGs, the Millennium Development Goals, honorary South African Graca Machel, chairperson of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, expressed some frustration to journalists at heads of states being unwilling or unable to tackle the elephant in the room: the humanitarian crises that threaten to wipe out these gains.

She pointed out that if political solutions were not found to end the conflicts sweeping the world, nothing was likely to change for 30-million of the 59-million children currently out of school and living in emergency situations, for example. She spoke about being a refugee herself during the war in Mozambique and said she knew what it was like to live in a camp. “They are not places of dignity for anyone. If you have the choice you’re not going to stay there,” she said.

At the Social Good Summit that took place in parallel in the less formal environment of 92nd Street Y, an eclectic mix of notables from former New Zealand prime minister and UN Development Programme head Helen Clark, to International Rescue Committee head David Miliband, to actresses Sienna Miller, Freida Pinto, Charlize Theron and Laverne Cox, to veteran rock star Patti Smith, sat on sparkling white couches to debate how to save the people and the planet. Most of the women (Smith excluded) were decked out in extremely high heels.

Others did their bit to popularise the 17 SDGs by taking turns to march across the stage holding up placards of each goal. The idea of the Global Goals campaign is to try to stamp the 17 SDG goals in the minds of the public with a combination of celebrity association and colour coding. Whether this will work remains to be seen, but the celebrities tried their best. Unpacking the 169 targets that are supposed to underpin the SDGs goals, however, will be the far more daunting task that the growing army of UN bureaucrats and other associates will have to get their heads around.

Somewhere in the poster-brandishing, star-studded line-up that also included billionaire philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, Victoria Beckham, Queen Rania of Jordan and Ahmed Mohamed (the photogenic 14-year-old Texan arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, who has become an overnight star), was a demure-looking Felicia Mogakane from the Black Mambas, a community-based anti-poaching initiative. She brought out Goal No 15: “Life on Land”.

Set up to stop rhino poaching in the Olifants West region of the Balule Nature Reserve, Limpopo, according to their website, the Black Mambas are clearly the new darlings of the UN. Decked out in camouflage outfits, Mogakane and her colleague Colette Ngobeni kept popping up everywhere, provided some vivid contrast to all the white men in suits. Ngobeni later explained that the Black Mambas, a mostly women’s initiative, were “the eyes and ears of the bush”. “When we leave our families to fight the poachers, sometimes we don't know whether we’ll be back or not.” Despite the nobility of their cause, details about their initiative were a bit sparse, however.

The person who brought some much-needed irreverence to the goings-on was our Charlize Theron. She may sound like an American but Theron comes across as a “ware” South African, with her warmth and straight talk. Dressed in a flowing orange-and-white outfit (and very high strappy black heels) she spoke to Kweku Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, filmmaker and Aids activist, about her Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project and the ongoing challenges of HIV.

Mandela gave the stage over to Theron, who did not disappoint. She teared up at an interesting moment: not when recalling the sight of a child orphaned by Aids as one might have expected, but when describing the moment she heard a young 16-year-old boy talk openly in a workshop about anal sex and asking whether he could use a female condom to protect himself. Theron, who joked about the female condom being the size of “a tent”, said she grew up in a culture of sexual repression and was heartened to see such attitude shifts among South African youth.

Theron also poked fun at Republican-driven messages of abstinence in previous US-backed initiatives against Aids, and then laughingly said “erase that”. She was alluding to actress Emily Blunt having recently been lambasted by Fox media outlets for tweeting that she regretted becoming a US citizen after hearing presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump sounding off at the Republican primary debate recently.

Last but not least in the line-up was activist for life and head of Greenpeace Kumi Naidoo. Striding onto the stage in a colorful African robe, Naidoo was at pains to draw an analogy between the struggle against apartheid and today’s fight to stop “climate apartheid”. He reminded audiences of Madiba’s famous quote that “courage is not about the absence of fear but of triumph over it”.

Naidoo described the US as the “best democracy that money can buy” and spoke about the need to find new ways to stand up against “the laws protecting those who are driving us towards climate catastrophe” – ways that need not be legal of course, as Greenpeace well knows. Naidoo said he and other colleagues had been thrown into jail in Greenland and Russia for taking on the oil giants, and urged more people to join his cause. He was in a celebratory mood because the announcement had just been made that Royal Dutch Shell would stop drilling in the Arctic.

Naidoo told journalists that after stepping down from Greenpeace at the end of the year, he’s returning to South Africa to try to stop the South African-Russian nuclear power deal from going ahead and to join Jay Naidoo in an organic farming venture at former hippy retreat Rustlers Valley. He also said that some of his former struggle buddies, who have grown very rich and very complacent, are no longer his friends.

By and large, there were some ‘proudly South African’ moments to grab onto amid all the fanfare around the SDGs. DM

  • Philippa Garson
    Philippa Garson
    Philippa Garson

    Philippa Garson is a freelance journalist and writer living in New York. She covers global development and humanitarian issues for IRIN and also writes about health, drug policy and organised crime. She started out long ago as a trainee reporter at Weekly Mail, where she worked as an investigative and political reporter and then editor of M&G's sister publication, The Teacher. After completing a Fellowship on HIV/AIDS and the Media at Wits Journalism School she moved with her family to New York, a city she loves and hates, depending on the day. She never stops missing home. 

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