Trevor Ngwane: Two essays on the WSF


The World Social Forum (WSF) is coming to Africa in 2007. This is great news. But how exactly will the coming of the WSF to Africa in 2007 advance the struggle against neo-liberalism and capitalist domination? This is an important question for people who want to stop the centuries-long pain and suffering of the masses in Africa and other parts of the world.

Having attended all the world social forums, I think that they continue to be an important rallying point for all struggles against neo-liberalism in the world. But there are certain tendencies developing in the WSF which have me very worried. My wish is that when the WSF comes to Africa we should be able to build on its strengths and eradicate its weaknesses.

President Lula chose to address the WSF 2005 during the launch of the Global Campaign Against Poverty (G-CAP) rather than as many expected in the bigger rally after the opening march. To me, the G-CAP is a campaign conceptualised and designed in the boardrooms of NGOs and funding organisations rather than in the streets and trenches of practical grassroots struggles by social movements, trade unions and other mass organisations of the working class. While the WSF vision is "another world is possible" the G-CAP campaign seeks to build this new world using thescaffolding of the old, namely, the United Nations' Millenium Development Goals, G8 commitments, IMF/World Bank prevarications and southern governments' capitalist policies.

There was a beautiful moment when Coumba Toure of Senegal, during the G-CAP launch, sang a freedom song and then told a story about how we should destroy the cage imprisoning all the birds rather than pay 50 cents to buy a single bird's freedom as people seeking luck do in the streets of Dakar. This must be our vision for the WSF in Africa: to destroy the capitalist cage which imprisons Africans and all of humanity's social, economic, political and cultural development. Any lesser vision will be a capitulation to the bird-seller who sells us the birds' freedom but is the one who imprisoned - and continues to imprison - the birds in the first place.

The African Social Forum's founding principles recognise the primacy of social movements over NGOs in the struggle against neo-liberalism. NGOs, research institutes, individuals and academics are important but they must play a supportive role. It is the masses themselves who possess the power to liberate themselves - hence the importance of social movements and other mass organisations such as trade unions, grassroots women and youth groups, informal traders' associations, homeless people's federations, etc. But it seems that the African delegations to the WSF still largely consist of NGO types. This was clearly the case in the meetings of the African Social Forum (ASF) council held in Porto Alegre during the WSF 2005.

The WSF governing structures - its international council and secretariat - are unwittingly allowing the marginalisation and eclipse of social movements by their hands-off, laissez-faire approach to the organisation of events and activities in the WSF space. Thus the G-CAP campaign was able to steal the show during the WSF 2005 because Oxfam, Action Aid, the United Nations and other agencies had the resources to secure Lula's time and overwhelm the proceedings with their giant-sized zeppelins and hundreds of thousands of brochures and pamphlets.

If we compare Latin America's social movements with those in Africa we must admit that ours are fledgling infants. In many countries we still do not have national social forums despite the resolutions taken by the ASF in Addis Ababa. Where they exist they are still mostly dominated by NGOs rather than by grassroots organisations and social movements. If the funding agencies could so easily dominate the WSF 2005 in its birthplace in Brazil, can you imagine what will happen in Africa? The more cynical among the pro-status quo agencies are probably banking on the Africans tearing each other to pieces fighting over which country must host the WSF in 2007. The vultures are already circling waiting for the right moment to pounce on the dead corpse of the African movement and then to triumphantly hoist their neo-liberal flag.

Comrades, I humbly submit that as the ASF we should be aware of these dangers and take vigorous steps to circumvent them. In all that we do let us put the interests of the African masses first. This means the interests of the working class and its constituent elements, namely, employed and unemployed workers, the landless peasants, women, youth, informal traders, cross border traders, the aged, people living with HIV/AIDS and all the social groups smashed by capitalism. None of these sectors can truly advance their cause so long as capitalism is the dominant economic system in the world.

We should use the build-up to the WSF 2007 to build and strengthen the social movements in Africa. We need a programme of action for this momentous task. We should broaden and strengthen the ASF as the tool to co-ordinate this work. Maximum internal democracy, accountability, collective leadership and mass participation are crucial in building the ASF. NGOs and research institutes are important and welcome in the ASF but only those who agree to the primacy of mass organisations in the struggle; only those who privilege methods of struggle which actively involve the rank and file rather than rely on few specialists to fight it out. The WSF 2007 in Africa should be structured logistically, organisationally and politically to favour the social movements and their daily struggles.

The WSF 2007 in Africa cannot afford to be a talk-shop. We should consider a specific concrete campaign and outcome which will benefit the African masses practically. Some have suggested linking the WSF 2007 with the call for the actual cancellation of the debt and the struggle for reparations. I personally support this approach as it unites us with Africans in the diaspora who are also fighting for reparations. But whatever specific campaign we decide upon, be it HIV/AIDS linked to gender equality or trade, we must not forget the analogy of the birds in the cage. The WSF in Africa must help us gather the social forces and build the power to destroy the cage rather than buy us the freedom of one bird.

In our preparations for the WSF in Africa we will need to draw the class line between exploiter and exploited, capitalist and victim/opponent of capitalism.Let us unite and build towards a WSF 2007 that will take forward the struggle to destroy capitalism rather than merely reform it. Amandla awethu! (The power is in our hands!)


1) The foundation of the WSF is international solidarity. The main reason the WSF is coming to Africa in 2007 is because we must give solidarity where there is the greatest need. Africa, taken as a whole, is undoubtedly the one continent where the greatest suffering of humanity is to be found in the world today. Capitalism has been exceptionally destructive in Africa: slavery, plunder, colonialism, apartheid, neo-colonialism, structural adjustment policies, etc. Africa has paid a very heavy price to facilitate capitalist development. That is why it is absolutely correct that the WSF must come to Africa just as it was correct to take it to India last year. Following the same principle and logic we cannot turn around and say the WSF in Africa must be held in SA because that is not where the greatest need is in Africa. To the contrary, SA is a relatively rich country in Africa and is classified as a middle income economy in the world. This is notwithstanding SA being the second most unequal country in the world. It would, in my opinion, be a grave mistake to take the WSF to SA because it would be counter to this principle of going to where the greatest need is and thus be a barrier to building solidarity inside Africa and internationally. The points below are elaborations of this basic argument. I also believe that it is more likely that we can make the WSF less into an event, no matter how "successful", and more like a campaign if we avoid having it in SA. It is for these reasons that I think the left in SA should support the WSF going to Kenya especially as this is the only country which has submitted a proposal to host the WSF in 2007.

2) South Africa (SA) is a neo-liberal state and no "better" than any African state in this regard. In my opinion SA is worse because, as a middle income economy in Africa, it has, at least theoretically, more space to resist imperialism's neo-liberal impositions than other poorer African states. Instead of using its limited breathing space SA has chosen rather the role of a perpetrator and conniver in strengthening and spreading neo-liberalism on the continent. During recent WTO ministerial negotiations the SA government has mostly come out on the side of the imperialist countries against the position of its fellow African and southern countries. The SA government has at times exerted pressure on SADC states trying to coerce them into adopting neo-liberal policies. Instead of using its position of relative strength to resist neo-liberalism SA has opted to join the exploiter and play the game according to capitalist rules e.g. GEAR is a form of structural adjustment programme which most African were coerced to adopt by the World Bank and IMF but the SA government voluntarily adopted.

3) Too many conferences and international events are coming to SA, namely, the WSSD, WCAR, international HIV/AIDS, rugby world cup, soccer world cup 2010, etc. This is unfair on other African countries; they too must be given an opportunity to host important international events and showcase their countries and get whatever benefits accrue from hosting such events. It is not right that SA should exploit its economic and political ascendancy to dominate African events. This ascendancy is an inheritance from SA's ruthless and predatory capitalist policy in the past and the struggle this endangered. Lest we forget, the wealth, economic development and superior infrastructure found in (certain parts of) SA are the spoils from the past super-exploitation of black labour in the mines and factories. This labour was sourced from all over Africa notably Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe etc. Nor should we uncritically accept SA's credentials as the model democratic country in Africa. A lie beloved by the international and local bourgeoisie is that the people's victory over apartheid was a "miracle" born of political good will, reasonableness, reconciliation and letting bygones be bygones. Nothing could be further from the truth! The victory over apartheid was no miracle. It was achieved on the backs of millions of ordinary workers who suffered, many of them dying, for centuries and decades under the evil capitalist system in SA. Remember the Sharpeville massacre, the June 16 uprising, the Vaal 1984 uprising, etc. Remember how Stephen Biko, Chris Hani, and many other leaders were murdered. It was the struggle of the millions and millions and the attendant sacrifices by numerous rank and file people that made possible the new democratic SA. Remember the sacrifices many African countries gave in the struggle against apartheid: hosting our guerillas, receiving fugitives from apartheid, sticking to their guns in their principled opposition to apartheid in international forums and so on. Mozambique, Angola and Namibia are countries which were wrecked by the apartheid psychopaths because they stood with us against statutory racism. If it was not for apartheid's destabilization policies these countries would be much more developed than they are today. Samora Machel, the Mozambican socialist president, paid with his life when the apartheid state crashed his airplane at Mbuzini near Nelspruit because he stood firm against apartheid under very difficult circumstances.

4) SA has so far failed to repay the debt it owes to African states and peoples who sacrificed to help us attain our freedom and the world acclaim we enjoy today as the most democratic and progressive country in Africa. Indeed, Mbeki's opposition to apartheid-financing reparations and default on odious apartheid debt remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to international financial reform. Instead, SA has chosen to play the role of a sub-imperialist power, encouraging its big capitalists and bankers to re-colonise Africa through taking over African businesses and resources. The mining houses like Anglo and DeBeers have locked up much of the mineral wealth; ESKOM is buying African power stations for privatisation; Vodacom and MTN are cornering the African cellular market; Shoprite Checkers is not only demolishing the African retail sector but is also changing buying patterns away from even local produce to imports; SABreweries has devoured many African beer manufacturers; the Johannesburg banks are marching up the continent. For many companies, profits that flow from Africa to South Africa, then flow out to London which is the site of their new financial headquarters. Does such a country's bourgeoisie deserve to be "rewarded" once again - but this time by our movement, the global justice movement, a movement expressly formed to fight against imperialism and the rich getting richer?

5) South Africa does not convincingly reflect the cultural, political and economic conditions in Africa if that is what the WSF seeks to find out by coming to Africa. And even where there are similarities with African countries, it is unlikely that the people coming to the WSF would be adequately exposed to the realities faced by the South African working class and the poor. Most delegates will content themselves to shuttling between the seminar venues and their hallowed and comfortable hotel rooms and B&Bs; they will be encouraged to do so by the hysterical warnings they will get from the bourgeois press and the middle classes about crime in SA. In Porto Alegre people were sticking to their air-conditioned rooms just because of the heat! As a result the true condition of the Brazilian working class, in particular, that of the Afro-Brazilians, is unknown to many who went to attend WSF 2005. What indeed is the point of taking the WSF to Africa and then choosing to have it in a country which in many respects is most unlike Africa. It is like taking someone to Sandton in the name of showing them what life is really like in Johannesburg for the masses.

6) The South African political and economic elite, in particular, President Mbeki and the (black and white) bourgeoisie and its political corps, will take full advantage of the WSF and use it to promote their hegemonic ambitions in Africa. Already NEPAD is increasingly revealing itself as a cover for Mbeki's bid to go down in history as the leading African statesman in the globalization-afflicted new millennium. Obasanjo, Bouteflika, Wade and other African neo-liberal leaders are contesting Mbeki on this but the WSF in SA would certainly strengthen his hand. He will in all likelihood project himself as the Lula of Africa. Lula has already unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) opened the door to this by his dubious G3 project where Brazil, India and SA are meant to lead the world's poor countries by being the main cocks on top of the neo-liberal dunghill of the south.

7) Mandela has been - wrongly - projected by the naïve left and the far-sighted right as the political saint of the new millennium. If the WSF in 2007 finds him alive and politically active this will be a source of great confusion to many activists and NGOers coming to SA. He will be the neo-liberals' trump card. No doubt the bourgeoisie and political elite will use him to make fantastic claims about how progressive SA is and how much is being done for the poor and why the world should support the South African government's capitalist machinations. Don't be surprised if Bill Gates and Bono end up in the WSF rather than in Davos with the aim of grabbing a photo opportunity with St. Mandela. And Mandela will charm everyone and tell the world how he is a disciplined member of the ANC and answerable to "the movement" (not to be confused with the anti-capitalist movement). Gracious as always he won't attack anyone and use epithets like "ultra lefts" but will leave this important duty to Mbeki, Ngonyama, et al.

8) The WSF's coming to SA will not challenge South African social movements, trade unions, progressive NGOs and research institutes to broaden their social base by working harder and closer to the ground. But this is exactly what is required of them at this crucial moment in history, in particular, to extend their work beyond South Africa's borders and endeavour to unite the continent around an anti-capitalist platform and programme. Instead, if the WSF comes to SA, they will get complacent in their comfort zones and assume the posture of the South African bourgeoisie vis-à-vis African movements because their "leading role" in Africa will be confirmed without them having to lift a finger. Sadly some lefts in the movements and the unions are already talking the same language as the capitalists and their surrogate funding organizations; they express their doubts about whether any other country in Africa besides SA can make a "success" of the WSF. Africa is in a mess and South Africa is the exception. That was Verwoerd's and Vorster's rationalisation of apartheid, remember? The South African capitalists justify their plunder of African business and markets using the same argument. The South African movement and union leaders seem to be speaking the same language in relation to their exploited and oppressed brothers and sisters in the rest of Africa. What a shame.

9) The WSF will prove to be divisive and damaging to the re-invigorated struggle in SA and Africa. A complicated repeat of the tensions and divisions that visited us during the World Summit on Sustainable Development is bound to happen. Except there will be no World Bank and IMF to unite against and thus help us to clarify our positions against neo-liberalism and exposing the vacillators and collaborators. There will be no repeat of the great march from Alexander to Sandton to forge our anti-capitalist platform because the WSF is usually a medley of activities which absorbs the energies of activists and blurs their political focus. With the WSF defined as an open "space" where any organization can stage an activity the genuine anti-capitalist movements will be swamped in the bog marsh of endless workshops and seminars and exhibitions allowing the reformists to do their dirty work under cover of the open space, horizontal decision-making and the laissez faire atmosphere. The SABC will not be promoting the anti-capitalist side nor will the funders fall over themselves giving us money to stage more events. We will have no choice but to fight for the visibility and hegemony of our anti-capitalist platform and ideas but I foresee a spirited but frustrated contestation by the genuine left given the odds against us.

10) The East African sub-region of the African Social Forum has already submitted a proposal ("bid") to hold the WSF in Nairobi, Kenya. No other sub-region or country has done so and we are left with barely 2 months before the WSF international council makes its final decision at the end of March. If SA were to submit their proposal now I think it will create tensions and divisions. This won't contribute to building unity in Africa nor help reduce the resentment some African comrades already feel towards SA. I think it would be a mistake to develop a "fall back position" which involves us writing (and submitting) a South African bid in order to pre-empt any other organization doing so. The SMI took a clear position against the WSF coming to Africa because it felt that too many events are coming to SA to the exclusion of other African countries. Everyone including ourselves will be totally confused if we now develop our own bid. Comrades from Kenya and East Africa made a point of asking for South African comrades' support for their bid in Porto Alegre. When the SMI discusses this issue my suggestion will be that we should stick to supporting the East African bid. Kenya, like SA, also has a rich history of struggle and movements. Kenya is the land of the legendary Mau Mau; Kenyan movements were recently part of thev victorious mass mobilization to get rid of the dictator Arap Moi. Our job as South African comrades is to build on Kenya and East Africa's strengths and help them overcome their weakness where these are identified.


The vision of the African Social Forum is to make the WSF 2007 the biggest initiative and meeting in post-colonial Africa. All African countries got their independence but uhuru is bound by capitalist chains. In 2007 it will be 5 years of NEPAD and the occasion can be used to evaluate this capitalist policy and expose those leaders who champion it. Going to Kenya will be our chance to take the message of resistance and grassroots struggle to Africa as we understand it. Africa has a lot to teach us. Apartheid cut us off >from the rest of Africa. It is better to get to know a person by visiting them in their house and neighbourhood rather than inviting them over to your own place. Let us work with our comrades in East Africa and other parts of Africa and other continents to prepare for the WSF 2007 through mass mobilization. If we want to connect to the African masses outside our borders we should think of filling a 100 buses and going to Nairobi rather than expect the African masses to jet into SA. When we get to Nairobi we should orgnise to sleep in tents and with villagers in their houses and community halls. It is time to get out of our comfort zones, to eschew insular and inward-looking methods of struggle and ways of doing things. It is time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and from this vantage point see the whole of Africa. Africa is a canvass and through struggle waged together with our fellow exploited African brothers and sisters we can paint a new future, a future without capitalism. Let us go to Kenya in 2007.

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