I was as exited as hell. Minister Alec Erwin, Minister of Trade and Industry, asked me to be part of the Ministerial Team to go to the WTO round in Seattle. Not only was it an incredible honour to represent my country, but this was going to be my first trip to the US. USA here we come.
It was a long, long flight to Seattle. It’s a 14 hour flight to Miami and another 7 hours to Seattle. And a few hours hanging around Miami waiting for our connecting flight. It took me just more than 24 hours to get from Cape Town to Seattle. Remember, those were my smoking days.
No luck in having a smoke in Miami. Welcome to the US – where smoking was already banned. I was held up by security for a while. I guess my diplomatic passport didn’t do the job. Yep, got one of those, but only for the duration of Seattle WTO round. No time for a smoke. I was slowly dying by this time.
Actually it wasn’t that bad. I am like Pavlov’s Dog when it comes to flying. I fall asleep the second I feel the engines starting. So I slept pretty much for 20 hours plus. I was wide awake by the time we got to Seattle in the middle of the night. Time to hit the bar then.
Dennis George, from another trade union federation, and myself decided to go for a few beers and see if that would get us ready for bed. The theory was that we will either get tired or pass out if we drank enough. So we sat in an almost empty bar and had a few bad beers – my first Bud was my last Bud. The only other people in the bar was the barman, one fat middle aged with a walking stick and a beautiful girl in her 20s. They weren’t together.
The girl got up to leave and started walking in our direction to get out – we sat close to the exit. Dennis looked at her and as she came closer – well more of a stare than a look. You need to know Dennis… She almost passed us when Dennis mumbled a hello. She stopped and turned towards us – and looked at us for a few seconds. And then she asked if she could join us.
That was odd. Neither Dennis or myself are much to look at. Our beauty is more internal… Dennis bought her a drink and I just looked at her trying to figure out why she wanted to join us. So I asked, ‘what do you do for a living?’ She was a ‘private exotic dancer’, she said. I was trying to figure it out – and then it hit me. ‘So, what does a private exotic dancer do?’ ‘Anything you would like me to do. In private.’ Confirmed – she was a prostitute.
With that out the way it made it easier to talk. I wasn’t going to pay. I would have to leave if she wasn’t a prostitute. I am happily married and have no interest in other women. But with her being a prostitute it meant that she wouldn’t want to sleep with me in any case – I wasn’t going to pay! No interest from either party. We could just sit and chat. And I told her so.
We had a nice chat. She came from somewhere I can’t recall. Somewhere in California I think – San Something. She came to Seattle to ‘work’ the WTO delegates and already had a few ‘hits’. I asked her how much she charged – $400 per hour. Bloody hell! Three strikes and I am out – love my wife, won’t pay and can’t afford anyway. But Dennis had other ideas.
Dennis started talking about the possibility of them coming to a financial agreement that suited both of them. He was trying to negotiate a ‘living’ price – like any a good trade union negotiator should. But she got down to $250 and wouldn’t move from their. Still way off the $50 Dennis was willing to pay. South African trade unionist were cheap – we didn’t get paid that much. But Dennis was arguing that he wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes at most and that made it $200 per hour. I think he was pushing with the 15 minutes claim – that was just subtle bragging.
I started losing interest in their discussion and concentrated on my beer and the guy in the bar. He was having this incredible chat with the barman about his shares. And the barman was talking about his shares. The middle aged guy was a fisherman (with a walking stick?). Two average guys talking about their investments. So different from South Africa where only the rich can even think about investments – never mind actually investing. Welcome to the US where they talk about their investments and not about surviving another day.
The middle aged guy got up and started walking towards us to leave. He was about to exit when he turned around and looked at the prostitute and tilted his cap and said, ‘evening mam. Send my regards to your family’ and then walked on. She didn’t hear him. I asked her if she knew the guy that walked past and she said that she doesn’t know him from a bar of soap. ‘Well, I think you just missed a customer as he was talking to you and said something about your family’. She jumped up in a flash and ran after him with all the composure she could muster. They spoke for a few second and then got into the lift and disappeared. She didn’t even say goodbye. Dennis was shell shocked. ‘Hey Dennis, you’ll thank me in the morning when you look at your wallet’. And with that I went off to bed. Alone. To sleep.
The next day was boring. We sat around and discussed tactics for the following day when negotiations was due to start. I was to focus on the African group of countries. The African countries negotiated a common position before we came over and it was my job to ensure we stick with this deal. With that done – time to explore the city and have a few beers.
Hit the jackpot at the first bar. I saw a group of people with steelworkers t-shirt drinking together. Well, I was a trade unionist and decided to join them for the evening. Had a ball. Shared trade union stories – they were all on permanent protest against a company that fired them a few years back. I didn’t tell them I was a WTO delegate as it became clear that they were in town to protest at the WTO meeting. It also became clear that they expected a huge protest the next day. People from all over will be in the streets – treehuggers, activists, trade unionist, anarchist all joining together for the first time to protest against something you could all agree on – their hatred of the WTO. It was late in the evening when we parted – and they gave me a steward’s badge for the protests planned the next day. I was now both a delegate at the WTO meeting and a steward and marshall at the protest against the WTO meeting!
President Clinton was going to have an official welcome on day one – and I was asked to represent South Africa with Minister Erwin and Kevin Wakeford from business. Needless to say, they expected me to dress the part – suit and all. But no, thanks to my steelwork friends, I knew that the protest was going to huge and dressed like a protester instead – khaki trousers, boots, suede jacket, cap and backpack. Easy to turn into something more presentable if I tucked in my shirt and took off the cap.
Of course Alec Erwin was less impressed with my choice of attire. We all got together in his, much fancier, hotel room before we left. I walked into his room and he stared at my clothes for a while before saying, ‘Mr H, I know you like a more casual approach to clothing, but you do know that we are going to the official opening to represent our country. And we are going to meet President Clinton’. I smiled at him and said, ‘we’ll have to see who makes it into the building first’. He had a perplexed look on his face but just shrugged and said, ‘lets go’.
Alec and Kevin had suits on – and their WTO delegate umbrella and id cards (hanging around their necks). That was the standard WTO delegate dress for the day. Needless to say, they stood out like a sore thumb in the streets where everyone was wearing protester clothing. We turned the corner to the building where the WTO meeting was to be held and just saw a sea of protesters. It seemed as if all 50,000 protesters turned our way and, seeing the suits and umbrellas advertising their WTO status, they all shouted ‘delegates!’ And then they surrounded our little group of three. Shouting and screaming insults – and making sure we don’t get any further.
Okay, they didn’t surround our group of three. They actually surrounded the group of two – Alec and Kevin. You see, I looked like a protester with my clothes, backpack and lack of WTO umbrella and id card (tucked away in my backpack and pocket). Alec and Kevin couldn’t move. They were surrounded. I looked at Alec and Kevin, winked and moved into the crowd. See ya later, suckers!
Everywhere I walked there were little groups of delegates surrounded by protesters. None of the delegates were allowed to move and no one could get close to the WTO building. But I was free to walk amongst the protesters. Especially with my steward badge and all.
It was a see of faces and dresses. Turtles, dolphins and even a few cows. It was something to see. Everyone standing for anything joined together for one day of protesting against a common enemy – the WTO. And the teamsters did their bit as well. Surrounding the place with trucks and buses. Making it impossible for anyone to get in or out. Man, it was beautiful and looked for a minute like the dawn of something new and powerful – people’s power.
I walked around to see if there was a way in. But the teamsters did their work pretty well. The trucks and buses blocked every angle. And they had people manning every opening to ensure no one got in. But I had to get in. That was my job.
I got to the building where Clinton was going to open the meeting. A few buses between me and the building. And a few protesters on top of the buses. And then the riot police waiting on the other side. Only one way in – over the buses we go.
I got on top of a bus and looked around. Good choice. No one else on this one. Just two cops on the other side waiting. But that shouldn’t be a problem. I have a WTO id card. I jumped down the other side and the cops came running towards me – their riot gear shaking and weapons aimed and ready. I shouted at them that I am a delegate. They stopped about 2 meter away from me and told me to get back ‘sir’. What? I repeated that I am a delegate – just let me get my id card. But they told me to get back. Their orders were to not let anyone in. What? Not even delegates! These guys were taking orders way too seriously. The first order of the day was to not allow anyone get through, but they forgot to tell them that they should allow the delegates through! (Tip for their superiors. Speak slowly, clearly and in single syllables. And remember. these guys don’t interpret orders. They just execute it – to the t).
They were getting agro and I knew that the best move would be to go back the way I came – over the bus. By now a few protesters have started to take notice of me on cop side of the buses. And they started to shout encouragement! Booing the cops. They still didn’t know that I was a WTO delegate. I moved back to the bus and a few protesters extended their hands to help me back up. ‘Great stuff’, ‘yea, take them on’, and ‘way to go brother’ greeted me as I got back into the crowd. I was a hero amongst the protesters for a little while…
But I had to get in. That was my job. I started moving towards the front of the main WTO building. But a human chain blocked my way in everywhere. I played the game – walking around as a marshall and steward telling people to strengthen the lines. All the while looking for a way in.
Things were starting to look bad though. The crowd was losing control. The anarchists started burning tires, throwing bricks and stones at windows, and climbing on top of building shouting and taunting the cops. I have been at enough protests marches in South Africa to know that this was only heading one way – a clash.
I got close to the front of the main protest facing the riot police. I was about 3 people away from the front when people started to sit down. Bad move. I have learned from experience that you don’t sit down in front of cops when they want you to move. And then came the teargas. It was like being home in South Africa back in the 80s all over again – protesting, riot police, teargas and stones versus rubber bullets.
The guy in front of me got hit by a teargas canister and it went off in his face. He started wailing and puking almost immediately. I grabbed my handkerchief, wet it with my water bottle and covered my face (a lesson learnt from many protests in South Africa – be prepared). It burned, but it was easier to breathe this way. And then I grabbed the guy that got hit by the teargas and started pulling him towards the side – towards the WTO building.
Make no mistake. I didn’t do it to help the guy. I saw him as my ticket to get into the WTO building. I dragged him to the human chain and shouted at them that I needed to get him to a medic – and flashed them my steward badge. They opened up and the medics were just a few meters away. I threw the guy at the medics and shouted at them to help him.
I sat down, washed my face with the bottled water and then took out my delegate id card. The cops were moving towards me – ready to either arrest me or kick me back into the protesting crowd. I got up and flashed them my delegate card and shouted, ‘will you now please let me in?’ They stepped back, pointed to the entrance of the building and shouted ‘go!’. I grabbed my backpack and walked over to the doors wiping the teargas tears from my face.
I got into the building and headed for the escalator to go upstairs to the meeting area. It was one hell of a long escalator. I looked up as I got on the escalator and just saw cameras flashing and rolling. Damn. The press. They have been starved of people to interview all day. No one made it in and here I was – a prey to pounce on. Someone to interview at last.
But I wasn’t meant to speak to the press. I had no training. What do I do? Push past them or say a few words? I quickly decided that I will speak to them. It has been about 3 hours or more since the South African team last saw me disappear into the crowd of protesters. I was sure that they were all back at the hotel room by now. Watching CNN to see hat was happening. I will talk to the press to let them know I am okay. I am alive and well. And that I made it in. So I straigtened my clothes and neatened my hair. Bring on the cameras baby!
I hit the top and froze. There were cameras and microphones everywhere. People shouting questions left, right and centre. I couldn’t register. Then I heard a question coming through my cloudy mind, ‘sir, what’s like out there?’ And I said the first thing that came to my mind, ‘well, the first thing that went through my mind when I smelled the teargas was home-sweet-home’. And it went out live for the world to see.
And the press loved me for that. I gave them a soundbite and that was what they wanted. I was their favourite for the rest of the day. I don’t know if it was because of my quote or whether I was one of only a handful of people they could interview. But I enjoyed the media attention and had my 15 minutes of fame – stretched to a few hours because of a lack of competition!
So I spend most of the day and evening talking to the press and drinking coffee. Nothing to do. The police had to clear the streets before I could leave the building again. But I did get a great t-shirt. Man the Americans are fast. I got a t-shirt that said ‘my trade minister went to the WTO and all I got was this lousy trade deal’. Still got it.
I eventually went to the hotel at 2 am. The cops escorted me all the way there. Two cop cars in front and one at the back. Me in the limo in the middle. So different from the day of protesting. But by now the streets were empty. Not a soul except for the cops.
I got to the hotel and headed up to Alec’s room. I wasn’t sure whether he would still be awake, but had to check in to make sure. Just to show him I am back. I could hear the tv inside and opened the door. He was still up with most of the team hanging around. He looked at me and shook his head saying, ‘home sweet home Mr H?’
Okay, so it wasn’t the best thing to say with the world watching. But who made it to the meeting and who didn’t?
(Note: a few other things on my Seattle experience.
Day 2 was even more unbelievable. There were absolutely no one in the streets. You could hear the riot police marching through the streets in typical military style. Their beat echoed off the buildings. Like police patrolling the streets in a police state. A sign of the future world to come?
I was walking the empty streets by myself for a little while – just to take in a bit of Seattle. And I saw my first sex shop. It had Barbie and Ken in S&M clothing in the window. I was dumbstruck and stared at it not knowing what to think. It was so foreign. Barbie has never been the same since. A sign of the future South Africa to come?
And of course, all of this happened while my wife and daughter was at home. We told my daughter that I was going to Seattle. She was almost three and didn’t get what I was doing there, but she got the fact that I was in Seattle. My wife was cooking when she heard my daughter call from the TV room, ‘look mom, Seattle’. My wife came into the room and saw the absolute chaos happening in Seattle. She knew that I would be one of the people in the rioting crowd. I always want to be in the middle of it – not participate, but try and get a sense of it all. Just take it in and observe people and their behaviour. And she did what she always does – she started worrying. She didn’t go to sleep until I phoned from the hotel many, many hours later. A sign of our future together when I travel?)
I always thought that my home-sweet-home comment was just relevant to that moment in Seattle. But it only hit home how true it was when I moved to the US many years later. It still felt like home-sweet-home. Both the good and the bad