Nov 12, 2003

South Africa Social Forum (SASF), Lusaka, Zambia on 9-11 November 2003

The first ever Southern Africa Social Forum (SASF) took place in Lusaka, Zambia on 9-11 November 2003, bringing together c.400 activists from social movements, trade unions, NGOs, churches, women’s organisations and other groups. Most attendees were from Zambia and Zimbabwe, with a significant presence from South Africa, and smaller numbers from Namibia, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Malawi, Mauritius, Swaziland and other countries.

The SASF followed the two Africa-wide Social Forums that took place in Mali in 2001 and Ethiopia in 2002, as part of the growing global social justice movement symbolised by the World Social Forum, previously held in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The African social movement, whilst vibrant at a local level, struggles to overcome the subordinate position of the continent in the global economy, which makes it particularly difficult to meet the transport and communication costs involved in attending continental and global events. It was agreed in Ethiopia that, to ensure wider participation in the growing anti-globalisation movement, Forums needed to be organised on a national and regional basis, hence the SASF event.

SASF resolutions
Representing many of the countries that have suffered most from the impact of neo-liberal economic policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, SASF agreed that both organisations, together with the World Trade Organisation, had no useful role to play in their countries and should ‘Pack up and go’. During the event, prominent members of civil society walked out of a planned meeting with a visiting IMF team, telling them they were not welcome in Southern Africa.

The Forum ‘unanimously agreed that the globalisation process, dominated by the giant transnational corporations from the North, is impacting negatively on the people’ of Southern Africa. It also rejected the New Economic Plan for African Development (NEPAD) ‘as an expression of support by certain leaders of our continent for the world’s elite at the expense of the majority’.

Strengths and weaknesses
The Forum did not, however, lead to a clear plan of action as to how these demands would be put forward within the region, a source of frustration for many activists present.

Whilst undoubtedly a significant step forward for the southern African movement against the neo-liberal domination of the global economy by multi-national corporations, the Forum experienced some of the same tensions that have recently expressed themselves in the wider social justice movement. There were noticeable divisions between NGOs, many of which see their primary role to lobby their Governments and the IFIs to lessen the impact of neo-liberalism, and more radical social movements that seek to challenge the structure of the global economy itself. This tension is heightened in an area like southern Africa, where many development NGOs are dependent on western donors and NGOs for their funding. The irony that the Forum was partially funded by the Open Society Institute, a philanthropic body established by billionaire George Soros, was not lost on more radical participants.

Poverty reduction – rhetoric and reality
Nevertheless, the level of disillusionment with market-based economic policies, in an area of the world that has experienced some of the most brutal structural adjustment policies, means that even many NGO practitioners are increasingly adopting more radical positions. As a highly indebted country, Zambia agreed a so-called Poverty Reduction Strategy Programme (PRSP) in 1999, in which relief of 50% of Zambia’s $6.7bn debt was promised. At a workshop on trade and debt at the Forum, Jack Zulu of Jubilee Zambia exposed the PRSP as an effective continuation of earlier adjustment policies, which imposed devastating cuts in public spending, which have increased, rather than reduced, poverty in Zambia (where 80% of the population live on less than $1 a day). Zambia has recently seen resistance to these measures: the PRSP requirement to privatise strategic State companies was postponed by the Government after popular union-led demonstrations, and a major civil servants’ strike was recently sparked by the Government’s reversal of a pay award following IMF pressure. These conflicts mean Zambia’s promised debt relief has now been indefinitely postponed, and there is a real possibility that the entire PRSP will collapse. The SASF rejected HIPC and PRSPs, and demanded not only immediate and unconditional cancellation of unpayable international debts, but also that the World Bank and IMF should make reparations for the damage caused by their policies.

Uneven development of the movement in Southern Africa
It was a shame, then, that the Zambian labour movement was so poorly represented at the SASF. The reasons for this were unclear, but the event was poorly publicised in Lusaka itself. The lack of a Zambian national Social Forum may have contributed to the fact that the Zambian resistance to the PRSP was not adequately represented. This was in marked contrast to that of Zimbabwe, which held its first national Social Forum in October 2003. This, coupled with the high level of struggle in Zimbabwe against the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe, and the significant presence of socialist organisation in the social movement in that country, meant that Zimbabwean activists played a central role in ensuring that the positions adopted at the Forum were critical not only of the IFIs and multi-national corporations, but also of the Southern African governments that implement policies that advance their interests against those of their people.

Relations with the State
The relationship with the State, and Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world, is a fundamental question for African civil society. Many still believe that African Governments are more likely to be progressive than their Western counterparts, and their influence on the failure of the WTO talks in Cancun was cited as an example of this at the SASF. Others argued that this was a result of popular pressure on Governments arising from the impact of neo-liberalism, and the failure of the WTO to ensure the removal of the trade barriers and agricultural subsidies used by the EU and US to exclude African producers from their markets. This pressure should therefore be increased, not lessened.

Which way forward?
African social movements, witnessing the continued domination of their economies by Western-based corporations, unsurprisingly tend towards Pan-African arguments which suggest that social justice would be increased if multi-nationals were replaced by locally owned businesses. This argument was, however, undermined at the SASF by the identification of an increasing dominance of the regional economy by South African capital, which many argued represents a form of sub-imperialism.

However these arguments play out, it is vital to demonstrate in practice that the peoples of Europe and Africa have more in common with each other than with the rich and powerful in all our societies. Social movement activists from Europe and the West have a responsibility to ensure that our African counterparts are empowered to enable them to play a central role in the wider global movement, particularly at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January 2004. Members of the SASF will be present, but in far smaller numbers than might be hoped, because of the sheer expense of travel costs for most Africans. We have much to learn not only from their direct experiences of the devastating impact of neo-liberal capitalism, but also the forms of resistance they have adopted. This was symbolised in the slogans and songs on the demonstration that launched the Forum: the unifying global slogans of ‘Now is our time’ and ‘The people united, will never be defeated’ were chanted, but the diversity of our movement was also expressed in a Zimbabwean song which says that ‘the drum is beaten in the morning, at the start of the battle’ – the battle against capitalism.


Miles Larmer -


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