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Publication Details

Reference
Cock, Jacklyn  (2003) A Better or Worse World? The Third World Social Forum Porto Alegre 2003. Centre for Civil Society  Research Report 5: 1-45.

Summary
The World Social Forum (WSF) is described as a unique meeting place for civil society organisations and the 2003 meeting was characterised by an extraordinary level of inclusivity and ‘solidarity in diversity’. The numbers and different social characteristics of the 100,000 participants illustrates how popular resistance to corporate globalisation is growing and slicing through differences of party, class, gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality and age. While in many of the meetings there was a strong repudiation of a corporate globalisation that is concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a global elite and deepening poverty, inequality social exclusion around the world, there were many differences regarding tactical issues.

This report argues that the significance of the WSF lies in its capacity to transform itself from an annual event into a process with an increasingly global reach, particularly into Africa and Asia. It is suggested that the Forum should be understood as a key component of an emerging global justice movement (GJM). Grasping the significance of this involves abandoning the rigid conventional categorizations of social movements in the social scientific literature on collective action. It is characterised by a radical decentralisation with no governing body, official ideology or mandated leader(s). This embryonic movement involves new forms of social activism. These are ‘new’ in that they involve new targets, alliances, connections, forms of organising and changes in the use of power. Some of these new forms of social activism are emerging on the local scene and several achieved a high level of visibility in the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) process. However research is necessary to establish whether they are ‘militant particularisms’, ephemeral eruptions of the urban poor, the rural landless and other marginalized groups, or components of the emerging GJM.

For South Africans privileged to attend the third meeting of the WSF the colour, energy and hopefulness of the estimated 150,000 people at the opening march was reminiscent of Mandela’s inauguration. The march was also a celebration of the election of Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metal worker and union leader. There were as many people lined up along the streets cheering the marchers, as those who joined the flow. The mood was joyous, with much chanting and dancing amidst a sea of red flags. But the WSF as a whole was both an energising and a sobering experience; inspiring in the sense that it gave us a sense of being part of a growing global movement for social justice, but sobering in that many speakers warned that we were meeting at an extremely dangerous moment in world history. The slogan of the WSF is “Another world is possible”. What emerged from the January 2003 meeting in Porto Alegre was that because of the threats of war and neo-liberalism this other world may be worse than the present one.

This report is divided into five parts, starting with the nature of the WSF. It is suggested that the third WSF was characterised by an extraordinary level of ‘solidarity in diversity’ but its significance lies in its capacity to transform itself from an annual event into a process with an increasingly global reach, particularly into Africa and Asia. It is argued that the WSF should be understood as a component of an emerging GJM that involves new forms of social activism. These are ‘new’ in that they involve new targets, connections and forms of organising. Some of these new forms of social activism are emerging on the local scene and it is suggested that the strength of the GJM depends largely on its capacity to connect the ‘local’ and the global. The final section sketches some of the implications of these developments for civil society in South Africa.

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