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Bond Patrick (2007) What space for concerns of the poor. Eye on Civil Society : -.

What political inspiration did we get from the gigantic World Social Forum (WSF), attended by 60 000 in Nairobi late last month? Usually the annual event takes place in Brazil, but in its seventh year of contesting the Davos World Economic Forum, Africa played host to the WSF.

One of the continent’s leading civil society commentators, Kenyan Firoze Manji of the Pambazuka news/analysis portal, offered an appropriately cynical spin: ‘This event had all the features of a trade fair - those with greater wealth had more events in the calendar, larger (and more comfortable) spaces, more propaganda - and therefore a larger voice. Thus the usual gaggle of quasi-donor and international NGOs claimed a greater presence than national organisations - because, essentially, they had greater budgets at their command.’

A similar observation came from the Social Movements Assembly at a January 24 rally of more than 2000: ‘We denounce tendencies towards commercialisation, privatisation and militarisation of the WSF space.’

Conflicts included arrests of a dozen low-income people who wanted to get into the event; protests to forcibly open the gates; and the destruction of the notoriously repressive Kenyan interior minister’s makeshift restaurant which had monopolized key space within the Kasarani stadium’s grounds.

Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane was a protest leader, but after the first successful break-in by poor Kenyans, reported stiff resistance: ‘The next day we again planned to storm the gates but found police and army reinforcements at the gates. Those officers carried very big guns. Comrades decided to block the main road until the people were allowed in for free. This action took about half an hour and then the gates were opened. The crowd than marched to the Organising Committee’s offices to demand a change of policy on the question of entrance. Another demand was added: free water inside the WSF precinct and cheaper food.’

Can and should the WSF’s famous ‘openspace’ concept be upgraded into something more coherent, either for mobilizing around special events (for instance, the June 2-8 summit of the G8 in Rostock, Germany) or establishing a left-internationalist political project?

Our own Durban-based Centre for Civil Society (CCS) has hosted several debates on this question in the last year, with at least four varying points of view emerging. Last July, for example, the great Dakar-based political economist Samir Amin presented the ‘Bamako Appeal’, a January 2006 manifesto which originated at the prior WSF polycentric event, and which combined, as Amin put it, the traditions of socialism, anti-racism/colonialism, and (national) development.

Reacting strongly against the Bamako Appeal, CCS student (and Johannesburg anti-privatization activist) Prishani Naidoo and three coauthors criticized its ‘last century’ tone and content, which mirrored ‘the mutation of the WSF from an arena of encounter for local social movements into an organized network of experts, academics and NGO practitioners.’

For Naidoo, ‘It reassures us that documents like the Bamako Appeal will eventually prove totally irrelevant and inessential to struggles of communities in South Africa as elsewhere. Indeed, the WSF elite’s cold institutional and technicist soup, occasionally warmed up by some hints of tired poeticism, can provide little nourishment for local subjectivities whose daily responses to neoliberalism face more urgent needs to turn everyday survival into sustained confrontations with an increasingly repressive state.’

A third position on WSF politics is the classical socialist, party-building approach favoured by Ngwane and other revolutionary organizers. Replying to both Amin and the autonomist critique at the July workshop, Ngwane fretted, on the one hand, about reformist projects that ‘make us blind to recognize the struggles of ordinary people.’ On the other hand, though, ‘I think militancy alone at the local level and community level will not in itself answer questions of class and questions of power.’ For that a self-conscious socialist cadre is needed, and the WSF is a critical site to transcend localist political upsurges.

A fourth position, which I personally support, seeks the 21st century’s anti-capitalist ‘manifesto’ in the existing social, labour and environmental movements that are already engaged in excellent transnational social justice struggle. The WSF’s greatest potential - so far unrealized - is the possibility of linking dozens of radical movements in various sectors.

Instead, at each WSF the activists seem to disappear into their own workshops: silos with few or no interconnections. Before a Bamako Appeal or any other manifesto is parachuted into the WSF, we owe it to those activists to compile their existing grievances, analyses, strategies and tactics. Sometimes these are simple demands, but often they are also articulated as sectoral manifestos, like the very strong African Water Network of anti-privatisation militants from 40 countries formed in Nairobi.

To bring these radical grassroots positions into alignment may require a hard-negotiated process similar to the compilation of the African National Congress-Alliance Reconstruction and Development Programme during the 1992-94 transitional planning years, drawing upon prior decades of life-and-death struggle over a myriad of social causes.

Meantime, Ngwane poignantly asks: ‘What space will there be for ordinary working class and poor people at the WSF? Who will shape and drive and control the movement? Will it be a movement of NGO’s and individual luminaries creating space for themselves to speak of their concern for the poor? Will it be undermined by collaboration with capitalist forces? I think what some of us saw happening in Nairobi posed some of these questions sharply.’

(Patrick Bond directs the UKZN CCS. The WSF debate is captured in a book launched in Nairobi by the New Delhi-based Institute for Critical Action and CCS: free download at

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