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Some (self-)critical reflections on the World Social Forum in Nairobi

Activists from social movements all over the world flocked to the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre six years ago for the first World Social Forum (WSF). It was organized under the slogan “another world is possible” to demonstrate impressively the counter position to the neo-liberal globalization project as represented and pursued by those in political and economic power. These meet every January for the World Economic Forum at the posh Swiss skiing resort of Davos.

Often erroneously referred to as anti-global movement, the activists mobilizing for the WSF represent simply another global movement, challenging the current forms of capitalist hegemony (and, as many would claim, capitalism as such). The “another world” they believe is possible represents the desire for “a better world” – a world without exploitation, discrimination, marginalization. They treasure global social conditions, which would allow for human security and a dignified life for all (well, at least most, given that there are those class interests represented by human beings, who would object to the implementation of such alternatives). Six years down the line, the latest WSF in Nairobi showed that while it’s rather easy to have such visions, it’s more difficult to implement them.

Some wear and tear resulted in a gradually increasing WSF fatigue among some of those who originally with enthusiasm mobilized and participated. The initial euphoria over the global bonds between “the wretched of the earth” (Frantz Fanon) remained not without mixed feelings over growing internal differences on the future course. Already at the first WSF a manifest of anti-capitalist youth was signed, criticizing the event for what they perceived as a reactionary policy of “humanizing capitalism” instead of trying to defeat it. An alternative “celebrity culture” with its inherent hierarchical structure was also emerging and suspiciously observed. It cultivated an aura of authority - if not personality cult - around some of the perceived, styled (or even self-proclaimed) alternative development gurus.

While the local grass roots crowds gathering during the earlier WSFs contributed to far above a hundred thousand participants in each case, the Nairobi WSF as the first of its kind on African soil provided a markedly lower turn out with less than 50,000 estimated participants. Many locals were simply denied access originally, because they were too poor to pay the registration fee. Others from further away were unable to fork out the travel costs and local expenses. Instead, the dominance of world wide operating NGOs (including foundations of political parties, the trade unions and the churches) as well as representatives of other institutions more or less directly linked to state agencies played a visibly dominant role and illustrated the obvious dividing lines between grass root activists, scholars and other professionally concerned “do gooders” from different spheres and social backgrounds.

As divided was the scenery at the Moi Stadium at the outskirts of Nairobi, where the sessions took place from January 21 to 24. Among those mingling with parts of the crowd were at least three Namibians: Alfred Angula represented the organized workers, Rosa Namises the women’s movement, and Ian Swartz from the Rainbow coalition strengthened the coming out of gays and lesbians, who used the opportunity to courageously fight the notorious local and continental xenophobia.

The opening and closing ceremonies were at the centrally located Uhuru (Freedom) Park. Among the speakers to open was Kenneth Kaunda, and I was certainly not the only one wondering about the basis of his merits. The mere fact that he finally behaved somehow decent as an “elder statesman”, after messing up the country and people with his earlier politics, was certainly not good enough a recommendation to address those committed to “another world”. The junior minister from Italy speaking at the closing ceremony and a number of other political office bearers and aid bureaucrats documenting their commitments to the common (?) cause left as dubious a taste and showed that the dividing lines are a contested issue. – Certainly not everyone among the WSF organizers and activists is immune against the flirting with power.

There were numerous other visible contradictions during the days in and around the Moi sports stadium adding to the mixed feelings. Ironically, this was built in the 1980s by the Chinese, had its peak moment when hosting the All Africa Games and is these days mainly reserved for paid leisure activities by the urban middle class. Those hundreds of thousands of shack dwellers in the slums nearby look at it at best as an alien object, which does not relate to their daily struggle for survival.

The professional North-South and global concern entrepreneurs occupied the best spaces in the venue. A local telecommunication company under foreign ownership provided a so-called special offer to participants, which maximized the company profits by means of a monopoly over services secured. The ordinary people running their humble food vendor businesses at affordable costs for the bulk of participants were forced to operate at the margins. The best-placed catering outlets were overpriced. The minister of inner security owed one of them. During an earlier stage of his career he was among those who tortured the same victims of the Mau-Mau movement, who testified at the WSF to their ordeal in the anti-colonial struggle some fifty years ago.

“Another world is possible”, yes, maybe. But the road to get there is long. And not all among those attending the WSF in Nairobi are (or should be) on board. That might, by the way, include myself too.

* Henning Melber had joined Swapo in 1994. He was the director of NEPRU in Windhoek (1992-2000) and the research director at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala (2000-2006), where he is now director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

This article was first written for the Namibian Big Issue and is reproduced with the permission of the author.

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