“[the world social forum is] an open meeting place where groups and movements of civil society opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism, but engaged in building a planetary society centred on the human person, come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action” – Porto Alegre Charter
It’s been only four days since I left Nairobi and the World Social Forum (WSF) and yet it seems impossibly long ago and the WSF slogan ‘Another World is Possible’ seems impossibly far from being achievable. Surrounded by the ebb and flow of consumerism and drowning in the capitalist smog of Jozi, and hearing reports from the activities of the WSF’s counterpart the WEF, it seems like the WSF was a small oasis of hope… a wistful dream.
Jaded from attending countless international and national conferences, seminars and conventions where one leaves with branded bags stuffed with papers and impossible action plans that seldom are implemented, I left for the WSF filled with hope for something different. I was looking for alternatives. This was one of the purposes of the WSF after all. In Seattle protesters had decried capitalism and neo-liberalism. In Porto Alegre (site of the first WSF) in 2001, activists came together to envision what the other world would be – if not capitalist, then what? If not patriarchal, then what? But I was not only looking forward to hearing about economic, political or environmental alternatives, I was also interested in experiencing other ways of working towards achieving these alternatives. I wanted to experience what happened when a space was thrown open to anyone as long as they subscribed to the charter of principles of the WSF. Who would fill it up? Would the need to control, construct and co-ordinate and create consensus overtake the desire for an open and unstructured platform? Certainly these questions were not new. They echoed in sessions I attended, at meetings attended by the WSF general assembly, and in the social spaces.
Amongst the many criticisms laid against the WSF is that there is too much talk and not enough action. That it doesn’t produce results. When I returned from the WSF I was asked time and again ‘so what was the outcome?’ Responding to this question is difficult; it is difficult to articulate the hope, strength and energy experienced by attending the WSF. In a country fixated on structure, policies and formal equality it is difficult to explain why this space is worth attending and defending. At one of the previous forums, in an attempt to give some coherence / summary of the discussions organisers had a wall of proposals. This year the different themes had sessions where proposals were formulated and forwarded to the organisers. As a first time participant I had no idea what would become of the proposals, and it seemed almost an exercise in futility until I was told that it would be used to describe what had been discussed during the WSF and that we could get copies of it on the website.
The WSF must be viewed as a process and not an event -it represents just one means of many to an end, and can never be an end in itself. It does not replace the need for conferences, declarations, and other sites of struggle. At best the WSF, and it is this for me, is a way of reconnecting to other struggles, ideas and experiences, it provides me with an opportunity to look up from my localised work and connect with other global social movements.
But it is the inherent contradictions and incongruence in the planning and execution of the WSF that also makes it a site for protest and direct action. As much as the WSF is about formulating alternatives to capitalism, imperialism and neo liberalism the organisers were often not immune from falling prey to these evils. Almost from the first moment of stepping from the plane, to the registration process and finally through to the closing ceremony one could not escape the advertising from a cellular phone company. ‘Welcome to the World Social Forum’ banners branded with the CellTel logo. Then there was the fact that the registration fee prevented many Kenyans from attending the WSF. All around examples of how the enemy had crept inside the sacred space. In response to each of these were examples of how activists fought back.
While for the first few days the Kenyans were excluded from participating, the international NGOs were present in full force. Healthy debate around non-governmental organisations (international and national’s) role and sometimes reformist approach versus the transformatory role of social movements was also discussed. International NGOs did enable many of us to attend the WSF, they also dominated the programme (with one INGO having over ten sessions).
Its not just who did or didn’t participate in the WSF, I had the very real sense of the need for proper preparation in order for meaningful participation. The programme itself took hours to decipher and had over 20 activities / sessions to choose from at any one time, many of which were incorrectly or inadequately described. I bumped into many tired, lost and complaining participants during the forum. Sessions started (occasionally) at 08h30 and ran until 8pm. Perhaps more could be done to facilitate ease of navigation and orientate first time participants- both practically in terms of the venue but also in terms of the programme. I envied the Khanya College delegation – comprising of over 150 activists from different social movements and organisations – who seemed to have been well briefed and prepared for the WSF. Programmes such as these seemed unique and important in ensuring both access and preparation for meaningful participation.
I cannot fail to mention the gender dynamic of the WSF. Prior to leaving I had heard about the levels of sexual violence at previous WSF gatherings. Working within the gender violence sector and having lived through the Jacob Zuma rape saga I was aware that many of the so-called progressive movements and liberation organisations are also sites of gender oppression / discrimination. So it did not surprise me that most of the panels consisted only of men carving out the solutions and alternatives. There were some exceptions, but these often left the impression of being an afterthought – a woman to speak about the impact of x issue on women, surely the gender dimension should be something mainstreamed and cross-cutting AND deserving of special focus.
If we see the WSF as a testing ground for ideas and support for issues – then indeed there is worryingly little support or interest for ensuring that gender justice and equality is on the agenda. There were a number of sessions focussing on women and violence against women specifically. Attendance – particularly of men – of these sessions was low and fewer men presented. In keeping with gender stereotypes, roles and norms the economy and sciences were the domain of men, while the ‘softer’ discussions / ones dealing with reproductive rights were only of relevance to women. I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a kind of core-periphery phenomenon at play. Sessions seemed to compete for attention, participation, space and profile. Economics or gender justice. Surely there is a way these ideas can be synergistic?
Long after the last bag of fair trade coffee has been drunk, and the t-shirts bearing slogans from the conference have been relegated to the ‘activist t-shirt’ shelf, one memory will stand out for me, it’s the memory of the march from the slum to Uhuru park in Nairobi. We trudged some 8 kilometres through this slum (where over 700 000 people live), dodging cars and free-flowing sewage, we chanted slogans and sang songs about socialism, George Bush, and freeing Palestine. It is in the different rhythms and protest songs that I find comfort and inspiration and that I recommit to working towards that other world where many possibilities can co-exist.