Walk Out Averted!
Civil Society and U.N. Reach Truce over Sandton Access
Por Bert Wilkinson
The United Nations and representatives
from more than 12,000 registered NGO and civil society groups,
reached a peace accord late yesterday, averting a potentially
embarrassing NGO boycott of the official negotiations over
access to the Sandton Convention Centre.
“We must say that the U.N. and
the South African government moved very quickly and were very
cooperative. They clearly averted protest action in the form
of a boycott, a march or a sleep, whatever people were planning,”
said Renate Bloem, president of the International Confederation
of NGOs and a key member of the International Steering Group
Tensions between the groups and U.N.
administrators boiled over into a full-fledged row yesterday,
after U.N. security officials moved to deny dozens of civil
society representatives access to the convention centre where
negotiations are taking place.
But following three rounds of emergency
meetings, including at least two attended by South African
Social Development Minister Zola Skneyiya and Nitin Desai,
the U.N. conference secretary-general, the two sides reached
an accord, averting what the German-born Bloem called a “near
crisis” at the summit.
From today, between 1,500 and 1,900 civil
society representatives will be allowed access to the centre
to interact with delegates and lobby ministerial delegations.
Two more entry points will be added to avoid embarrassingly
long queues that were evident yesterday.
The special pass system to Sandton, implemented
by security official, has been abolished, but Bloem acknowledged
that U.N. security and fire department officials would be
keeping an eye on overcrowding in the event of an emergency.
In all, non-government representatives
will have three entryways compared to one for negotiators.
Additionally, talks are going on with
transportation organisers to have shuttle buses moving on
a non-stop basis between Sandton and NASREC, to cut down on
the commuting time between the two major centres.
Earlier in the day, NGOs had demanded
the ISG take decisive protest action to pressure the United
Nations to ease access restrictions at Sandton. Suggestions
ranged from organising a massive march, whether permission
was granted or not, to withdrawing representation at Sandton.
But despite yesterday’s success,
more problems may lie ahead because U.N. officials have already
warned the groups that access will be severely cut for security
reasons from next week when heads of state and government
leaders arrive for the meeting. U.N. officials have promised
to consider setting up huge television screens in temporary
tents to cater to those unable to enter for security reasons.
“I would say that the U.N. and
the South African government did everything with their heart
and soul there. They wanted to ensure this was a success,”
“Our voices need to be heard
and Sandton is the main place for that. We have not travelled
all this way for nothing,” declared Paul Tennassee of
the Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Confederation