SASF Oct 2005 in Harare and WSF Jan 2006 in Venezuela have provided activists with three serious questions that need addressing to prevent the Social Forum from degenerating into yet another debacle.
The background of Venezuela led to questions being asked about the future of the WSF. The symbols of what was wrong with Venezuela before Chavez still exist today – the rich still in control, desperate poverty and right-wingers controlling the police - despite the social reforms leading many to receive education and health delivery for the first time. The movement that defended Chavez thrice has given confidence to workers fighting factory closures who often take over the factories and run it themselves. The recent election of centre-left Evo Morales in Bolivia after mass struggles and uprisings provided further background.
It is against this background that WSF 2006 delegates warned of the danger of WSF meetings becoming “a discussion forum with debate but no conclusions”. They warned that the WSF must move beyond critiquing and protesting the existing society to talk about how to bring about a new society. Leading global social movement activist Emir Sader wrote that the WSF “is leaving the phase of resistance…and is moving to actively participate in the struggle for another possible world”. In other words the Social Forum must move from being a commentator to an actor – move away from being yet another talk-shop.
Addressing this question means we have to look at how the Social Forum is organised – and by whom. Commenting on the WSF in Bamako, Mali, Peter Dwyer expresses disappointment at the low numbers and the heavy NGO presence. Geoffrey Players gets more to the point when he comments that “…the local population is very often not informed of this meeting…it is limited essentially to those coming from the elite…and who are often little in contact with popular movements”.
It is, unfortunately, also this same elite that funds the Social Forum – and dictates how the funds are to be used and corrupts activists through the commodification of resistance. Two examples in the run up to the SASF show this. The APF in South Africa did not send the contingent it was supposed to because the comrades were locked up in “debates” over the funding that was “offered”. Secondly, comrades in Zimbabwe democratically came to an agreement as to how to use funds from one of the NGOs. Then one of the middle-class “chefs” of the ZSF ran to the NGO to squeal. The NGO then made it clear that the funds were to be used as per their dictates. After this, other funding was “cut” meaning that hundreds of Zimbabwean activists could not travel to Harare for SASF. This was the most brutal example of the undemocratic nature of the elites and NGO’s.
This is one area of organisation that is critical for activists to discuss in the coming weeks and months. Financial accountability must become one of the priorities. Members of the social forum must know the budget of the ZSF in terms of income and expenditure and have the right to make decisions on the same.
It is also non-accountability in general that leads to the Social Forum becoming an event rather than a process. It means that the ZSF must become a living organ. After the Peoples Summit in September and SASF in October, there was much enthusiasm generated by the social forum process, as shown by its massive involvement in the ZCTU 8 November Anti-Poverty Action. But after there was a demobilisation of the process. Some of the reasons include that the ZSF is still too dependent on its ‘leadership’ structures; relies on an undemocratic decision-making method and focuses on events rather than a living process. And with many of these leaders, busy globe-trotting, nothing much has been happening since November. Further the insistence that we do not vote in social forum meetings as per the World Charter, is undemocratic and gives a few individuals the right to veto decisions supported by the majority. The origins of this principle lie in the desire of middle class NGOs to dominate the social forum process, but were afraid of democratic principles because they were few in numbers compared to the ordinary people and social movements. The result of denying the method of voting and majority rule is that decisions are made clandestinely by small cliques of people who are not accountable to anyone other than the donors who give the money. We suggest four ways to deal with this. Firstly, as ZSF we must adopt democratic methods of decision-making. Decisions must generally be made by consensus but if this fails voting must occur and the decision of the majority becomes binding. Secondly we must go back to our ZESA 2004 position that co-ordinators of the thematic clusters must also sit in the National Organising Committee. Most of these are militant rank and file activists who spend their time engaged locally in struggles and would be therefore be more available for ZSF work continuously. Further this would bring the necessary balance between the middle class – NGO technocrats who currently dominate NOC and ZSF and rank and file activists from the social movements. Such balance is absolutely essential if ZSF is to be a democratic and living process advancing the interests of the ordinary working people. Thirdly there is need to strengthen the movement away from focusing on date events, such as the October ZSF event, but to come up with ongoing programmes of thematic clusters and regional and township social forums. We need to urgently de-centralise and have township based social forums which will run active programmes of teach-ins, cultural and musical events, community activities like clean – ups and demonstrations. this means that we must adopt a Calendar of Resistance which we will run along with other progressive forces in society as the way forward to dealing with the current crisis of dictatorship and neo-liberal poverty.
ZSF is ours. It must be transformed into a living organ – not a forum for parrots who claim it is not an organisation but a space, but proceed to act exactly in the way of an organisation, not a platform for mere talking – but a platform for action.