First Update from the World Social Forum
Mandisa Mbali

I am currently in Porto Alegre attending the 5th World Social Forum with my partner. We will be sending short daily updates on our experiences at and reflections on the Forum for the duration of our stay here.


Porto Alegre is rapidly filling up with activists and academics, who are arriving for the first day of the Forum. We knew the forum would be big when we met at least three people headed here at Johannesburg International airport on our flight to Sao Paulo. In Sao Paulo, half the people staying at our backbackers were headed here too.

Having spent the last few days sightseeing in Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, it is clear that like South Africa, Brazil is a country with high levels of inequality, as many commentators have noted). We saw favelas (slums) on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, which contrasted with luxury villas complete with swimming pools on the waterfront which we saw on a boat tour of Porto Alegre harbour yesterday.

Left wing Brazilian activists and intellectuals we have met socially seem to disagree on what success Brazil's Worker Party (PT) President (President Lula) has had in overcoming inequality and social exclusion in the country. Some argue that Lula's difficulties in overcoming Brazil's inequality and social exclusion need to be understood in the context of the reality that PT rules in coalition with other more right-wing parties. Others note that Brazil continues to service debts it holds with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and that a senator and three parliamentarians were expelled from the PT for disagreeing with a piece of social security legislation proposed by PT, which they considered too right wing. We have seen grafitti around Porto Alegre saying « Another world is not possible with Lula and Bush ».

A Brazil-based progressive South African intellectual we met a few night ago compared Lula with Mbeki, arguing that like Mbeki Lula « talks left and acts right ». These debates are of great interest to us and we will continue to find out as much as we can about the utility of such comparisons. From what we can gather it seems as though Lula will be speaking at a session on poverty tomorrow morning, which we'll try to attend. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez will also be speaking on Saturday.

PT no longer governs the council of Porto Alegre, which has been taken over by a more right wing party. We were interested to learn this as the World Social Forum was launched in the political context of four terms of PT rule in the city. Our Brazilian friends argue that this is probably due to apathy and bureaucratisation setting in the city administration, which they argue ran out of fresh ideas. They added that the opposition argued that the city needed change. Sixteen years of PT rule and participatory budgeting improved the transport system and Porto Alegre's health system was far ahead of others in the region amongst many other PT reforms. The superior public health system meant that people came from miles around to use the cities hospitals, placing strain on the city's health system, which was exploited by the opposition in the recent elections. The city's middle class at first benefited from improvements in the city (such as its transport system) due to participatory budgeting, but the last few years came to resent PT's focus on addressing the needs of the city's poor. According to our Brazilian friends, the participatory budget's name has been changed and it is being emptied of substance. The new mayor apparently once said that the Social Forum is « made up of terrorists and communists living in an ideological Disneyland », but he has recently realised that the Forum contributes to the city's economy and even wants it to stay in Porto Alegre. Since PT lost the city, the Forum is in a sense now in a politically hostile space and we'll be interested to observe whether this impacts on it in any way.

There will be a big march to open the Forum later this afternoon, which we'll be attending: I'll send a quick report on how it went tomorrow. The programme is a bit daunting with thousands of seminars divided into 11 tracks (we were handed a programme the width of four editions of the M&G!).

The forum meetings and seminars begin tomorrow. We'll be focussing heavily on attending events focussed on Africa and/or organised by the Africa Social Forum, but we're also looking out for things of interest and relevance to new social movements in South Africa. This will be of particular relevance as we've heard that the next World Social Forum will be held in Africa.

Kind RegardsMandisa Mbali in Porto Alegre

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