As 6,000 delegates and 14 heads of state converge in this muggy coastal city to talk about racism, there is a particular irony. It's the first time the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance will make its keynote something other than South Africa's government.
This is a country that essentially defined racism. For nearly 50 years, the white-minority government outlawed black-rights movements and interracial marriage, enforced segregation in all sectors, and perpetuated a system in which whites controlled virtually all commercial land and industry. The past two conferences, in 1978 and 1983, vilified South Africa's government, labeling apartheid a crime against humanity.
Now, seven years after the end of apartheid, a new study shows how far this society has come in righting itself. According to a new study conducted by the Institute for Race Relations, the majority of South Africans rank racism as only the ninth most important problem facing the country, after unemployment, crime, and homelessness.
Of the more than 2,000 respondents, drawn from a cross-section of South African society, nearly half said race issues were becoming less of a concern, a quarter - mostly the white Afrikaans population - saying racism is getting worse.
"At the level of ordinary people (maybe not the intelligencia or politicians) ... the vast majority of people think things are getting better," says Lawrence Schlemmer, the sociologist who conducted the study. "That was enormously heartening to me."
"The South African experience is something we can share with the world, both the negative and the positive," says Jody Kollapen, a commissioner on South Africa's Human Rights Commission (HRC). "We can show what we've done - and are still doing - to overcome racism, but also indicate to them the challenges that we face and that may come back to haunt our democracy."
This nation of 43 million has a long road ahead, however. Black unemployment remains around 50 percent, crime rates rival those of the world's biggest cities, and and the past year alone has seen a number of high-profile acts of racism by whites.
Last November, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned television company, sparked international outrage when they aired footage of police setting dogs on three Mozambican immigrants. The video had been filmed by the officers for their own entertainment in 1998.
In another incident last year, a white farmer from the Free State province killed a black worker by dragging him behind his truck.
Nor has South Africa overcome the legacy of racial segregation. About 90 percent of schools remain racially homogonous, and, despite aggressive affirmative-action programs, the majority of managerial positions are still held by whites. The Institute's study also showed that a growing number of whites believe they have been the victims of reverse discrimination.
Although Mr. Schlemmer says that racism and the inequalities of apartheid continue to be significant challenges, the Institute's study, he says, shows that South Africans are ceasing to see such problems in racial terms.
"You can accept that they are the results of historical racism, or historical structural racism, or institutional racism," he says. "You just can't deal with it as 'racism.' To create jobs, we have to do a whole lot of really technical things, and really address it at the level of economic and investment policy."
Not everyone agrees that inequality and race can be so easily separated. The UN conference mission is largely to demonstrate that problems like poverty and globalization are in fact issues of race.
"A lot of these other issues, such as unemployment and crime, are linked to race," says Mr. Kollapen. "Clearly, I don't think you have to approach them entirely as issues of race, but I think you have to understand how race defined all sectors of life in South Africa. Race was what determined how all those resources were divided."
Last year, at the prompting of South African President Thabo Mbeki, the HRC hosted a national conference on racism in preparation for the Durban conference. In December, the commission plans to release a strategic plan to address racism with specific, quantifiable programs in more than 10 different sectors of South African society.
But Kollapen still has hope that good will come of this week's meeting.
"I hope that Durban will come to mean for the fight against racism what Beijing has come to mean for the fight against gender inequalities," he said. "It's the beginning of a national and international dialogue on race."