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Transitions: Common Wealth?


On South Africa's east coast, Durban is a beautiful, palm-treed city... I think.

Apart from sweating it out to watch a courageous parade of painted, barefooted school children dance its way through the burning streets, we saw mostly the interior of the convention centre. We were a diverse team who came together for an intense couple of weeks to create and attend a stand for Moral Re-Armament at an exhibition of NGOs, linked to CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). I knew little about the Commonwealth, but have been inspired by its principles (over page) and the number of associated bodies around the world. It is far from the small association of British colonies it once was, with some member states now republics.

Limited space, piles of material, diminishing funds and jetlagged minds do not make for an efficient creative process, but by the time our exhibition stand was ready we were so proud we were eager to show it to anyone who came along. And come along they did: heads of state and other delegates, royalty, business officials, students, other NGO reps, the Durban public (snake-handler included, who successfully freaked out one GE editor!). I left with the belief that NGOs will play a vital role in the successful, peaceful and sustainable governance of a global community, if only they are granted enough power.

It was the juxtaposition of so-called developed and developing worlds which struck me in South Africa--particularly the lavish Las Vegas-style Sun City casino/resort located in a rural area in North-West province, adjacent to (yet in a different world from) the corrugated iron roofs of a flood-prone shanty town. Many of the divisions come back to inequality. And surely it is this inequality that is responsible for the soaring crime rate and the alienating security measures --in Johannesburg, houses are secured like prisons and a walk through the daytime streets is simply not recommended.

Soweto has one of the highest crime rates in the country, and yet it felt different--people everywhere walking the streets, dancing in their front yards, cramming doorways. Many of those who moved out of the township when apartheid ended in 1994 have since missed its sense of community so much that they have returned.

The end of apartheid has, and is having, a profound effect on the lives of South Africans--not least many whites, some of whom have felt an enormous release from a guilt which has plagued them for years. Others (especially unemployed young men) suffer from the unintended outcomes of Affirmative Action. (A man stands on the road at a Johannesburg intersection, holding a sign painted in desperation: `I will do any work. My babies need food'.) In Jo'burg I watched the Wallabies defeat the Springboks amongst a diverse and friendly crowd (despite their profound disappointment and my jubilation!) in a pub that only a few years ago was restricted to whites. But I also spoke to black urban dwellers who avoid visits to their families in rural areas because of the lack of washing facilities and other practicalities there. The situation is more complex than I could have imagined and history inevitably drains into the present. At least we can offer encouragement, learn from this nation's incredible successes, and try to understand.

The `Modern' Commonwealth

· 54 independent states (1.7 billion people) which come together in the common interests of their people and the promotion of international understanding and world peace

· CHOGMs occur every two years--different to other high level summits in that leaders are encouraged to meet informally, without an invasive media presence

· half the world's `poor' people live in the Commonwealth

· 50th anniversary celebrated in 1999

· fundamental political values: democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and gender equality, the rule of law, and sustainable and social development

· the Commonwealth Youth Programme addresses issues of concern to young people (one-third of whom live in the Commonwealth)

· with its HQ based in the UK, it struggles with an image problem


Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been strengthening their role in the Commonwealth. The `People's Commonwealth' is a network of more than 60 NGOs from around the world. 150 NGO leaders participated in the third forum held prior to the 1999 CHOGM to formulate recommendations to Heads of Government. Some of these NGOs include Amnesty International, HIV/AIDS Awareness, MRA, Oxfam and Population Concern.

Jubilee 2000/Debt Relief

Jubilee 2000 is an international movement calling for

· cancellation of unpayable debt

· of the world's poorest countries

· by the end of 2000

· under a fair and transparent process.

It is made up of coalitions around the world, which share a moral commitment to debt cancellation. The world's 52 poorest countries (of which 37 are in Africa) owe a total of $354 billion, at face value, to individual governments and to the World Bank and the IMF. On average, the amount African countries pay in debt repayments to the West is 13 times as much as they receive in aid. As a result, domestic needs are underfunded and change cannot occur.

The real cost of debt cancellation is estimated to be $71 billion--only one third of 1% of the annual income of the richest countries. In June 1999, $100 billion of debt relief was announced, but it was mostly debt that could never have been paid anyway and will do little to relieve the burden of the poor countries. More must be done, especially by G-8 leaders. The Commonwealth could help by sending a clear message to the world community.

The G-8 summit in July 2000 is the final opportunity for debt cancellation to be linked to the new millennium. `I appeal to all those involved, especially the most powerful nations, not to let this opportunity of the Jubilee Year pass, without taking a decisive step towards resolving the debt crisis. It is widely recognised that this can be done.' (Pope John-Paul II, Sept 1999)


at a glance

·11 official languages (including English, Afrikaans and Zulu)

·at least 20 ethnic groups (total population 40.5 million)

·occupies only 4% of the landmass of Africa but has more than half the cars, phones, auto banks and industrial facilities of the whole continent

· 64% of all black families still live below the poverty line and less than one in three black people have piped water to their home

· returned to the Commonwealth in 1994, after a 33-year absence, when the apartheid regime was excluded

· likely to see more changes in the new Millennium than most countries in the world

· 1500 new cases of HIV/AIDS are recognised each day

· South Africa's second democratic elections were held in June 1999. `Those elections marked the conclusion of a phase of transition. The wider task of reconstruction remains to be accomplished; and in the context of South Africa, to reconstruct is to repair a century and more of deprivations.'

- Chief Emeka Anyaoku

Last update: 2000-02-12 20:06:04 (EEST).
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