4 February

We won't pay to discuss our own poverty!

Activist interventions into the 'open space' of the World Social Forum

Shannon Walsh

"The World Social Forum is suppose to be a space for us, but we are denied entry if we can't pay the 500ksh ($7us). We shouldn't have to pay to discuss our own poverty!" decried David Odhambo Ayimo, a local activist from the Nairobi slums on day two of the World Social Forum in Nairobi. About 300 people had gathered outside the gates of the Kasarani sports complex. Comrades from South Africa and elsewhere joined Nairobi activists to demand free entry to the WSF for Kenyans.

Trevor Ngwane from the Anti-Privatization? Forum spoke to the crowd. "We are very unhappy that the local people of Kenya cannot go in here,because this World Social Forum is about poor people, about the unemployed, about the working class."

Singing and chanting the group marched through the gates erupting in jubilant cheering as entry was gained. This simple, but concrete action won the spontaneous coalition's first victory. As the action died down, Orlean Naidoo from the Westcliff Residents Association in Durban told her newly found Nairobi comrades "I don't want to be inside with the NGO types, but out here with the real people who are suffering the same things we have at home in South Africa."

Later that afternoon, in the occupied offices of the Secretariat, answers were demanded from Professor Edward Oyugi about the high entrance fees, the telecommunications corporation CelTel's monopoly at the forum, volunteer mistreatment and the high prices for food and water.

"If we said all poor people could come to Kasarani for free," Oyugi xplained, "I can tell you, there would be no space here to walk." The crowd erupted: "But that's what want! That is what the World Social Forum is all about! Another world is possible!"

"We learned socialism from you, and now it is the students who must teach the teacher?"

By day four, the protests had moved to the Windsor Hotel food-vending tent, which was owned by the notorious Minister of Internal Security, where exorbitant prices made food inaccessible for Kenyans and others on a limited budget.

Falsely described in some local reports as a group of "40 street children who raided the tent of a food caterer" and who prompted "anarchist chaos", the group was large and diverse. Those who spoke had a clear anti-capitalist message.

Frances O., one of the more vocal young activists, spoke directly to the WSF participants who were enjoying cappuccinos under the tents of the exclusive Windsor Hotel restaurant. "They are stealing from us!

They are selling water. Next they will be selling air. This is suppose to be the World Social Forum, not the World Capitalist Forum!" The activists included many new faces from those I'd seen at the other protests, yet they were equally loud, passionate and principled in their analysis.

"Join us!" implored Frances. "This is not right". Very few WSF participants stood up from their shaded seats to stand in solidarity with the protest.

Assumptions early on that perhaps there 'weren't any Kenyan social movements' was further maintained as the protesting activists were depicted as disgruntled hooligans and 'poor people from the slums'. The activists became a sideshow, like the other cultural performers on display in Nairobi — discussed and observed – from a distance, and preferably over a Tusker beer or a Kenyan coffee under the shade of the Windsor Hotel tent. The principle that the forum was "opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital" was understood differently indeed.

Even without the physical solidarity of the majority of WSF participants concessions were won, yet it was sad and ironic that these concessions had to be demanded from the forum itself.

I admit that I felt hopeful, at least, with these young people, and ran around with a camera trying to capture their energy and message. At the same time, hope was mixed with sadness.

These battles are not rhetorical, as was starkly clear to me as I watched a group of five men split the 'spoils' from the 'pillaged' food stalls. A single packet of sugar was shared out between them, one man studiously pouring small portions of sugar into each outstretched hand. Is this the socialism we imagined to be taking place at the WSF?

Open Space or a farce of solidarity?

Something certainly felt wanting in Nairobi. There can be little doubt that domination of the formal WSF space by church groups and large NGOs (and one felt there was more than a tinge of nepotism and patronage in these relationships) sapped out some of the more radical analysis in favor of developmentalist agendas. It may also have been the significantly fewer number of young people at this forum (only 250 in the youth camp in Nairobi compared to 30,000 in Porto Alegre) that robbed the space of creative energy and fresh insight. There was also the much discussed visible lack of Kenyans in many of the panels I attended, likely due to the high entrance fees.

Regardless of the possible reasons, the under-representation of Kenyans and African social movements was stark, especially in contrast to the domination of Northerners. I must agree with Firoze Manji's remarks that "one couldn't help feel the absence of politics" during a week in which "social movements from the South were conspicuous by their numerically small presence at the forum".

In this light, focusing on the disruption caused by Kenyan activists around the exclusion of the poor from the Nairobi WSF becomes clearer. Of course the protests created a media spectacle, appreciated by activists and journalists hungry for 'action'. But it is not just for the spectacle of their struggle that the protests emerged as an important way in which to understand the WSF in Kenya. It also made stark the contradictions, bored rhetoric, complacencies and omissions in how the space is being actualized.

The WSF's principle of creating "an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate" and "free exchange of ideas…by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism" looks good on paper, but is it possible within the current depoliticized construction of the forum? It is a negligent optimism that imagines that when you open the doors (more or less, as some fees apply) you erase the structures of capitalism that mark our interactions not only within the world but within our organizations, our lives and our relationships. (And, please, don't open the doors too widely, because we'd be swamped with the masses!)

An 'open space' is of course a space where contestations can, and should, occur. Yet it is telling that many of our comrades from Nairobi spent so much time and energy demanding entry into the forum rather than building links, exchanging ideas, discussing the issues they face, and solidifying networks. The mere struggle to access the space, to eat and to drink water became central preoccupation around the WSF for many of the poorest activists in Kenya.

Clearly, the WSF is not truly a space for those struggling to survive or to find solutions towards sustaining bare life at any immediate level. When confronted by the actual masses and the lessons, struggles, and ideas that they might bring to the table, 'we' (the elite which travels the world to attend these meetings), watch unmoved, as 'they' divide up the sugar.

If we are honest, we must either claim that there is no role for the 'poor' in this space, no means to strategize with a starving person, or that we have failed in the project, even the miniscule one, of finding adequate ways to speak to one another and build together in contexts like this one. Kenyan social movements may have had something to say about the struggle for a better world beyond poverty, but what ironically blocked them from saying it was their very poverty itself.

Within a terrain organized to include petty capitalists, exploited workers, market forces, Northern domination, academic and NGO supremacy, and the disempowered poor, we must admit the Left looked like a caricature of itself. It is a zone of bad faith. We have created a carelessly, callously, exclusionary space. And for those that do consider themselves part of the masses (such as the Orlean's and Trevor's amongst us) the battle in these moments becomes one of asking for concessions from the WSF, not from neoliberalism.

Tragically, when we have a space in which we could actualize another possible world, we fail miserably, barely even making a gesture towards creating something outside this political economy. We assume on a micro-level the structures and inequities of capital with only a minor amount of apprehension. If this is the way that world might look, I'm not sure I'm interested.

I don't know that it's not even more of an ironic tragedy that while the gleaming towers of multi-nationals remain untouched, and while Davos goes ahead without protest, the organizers of the WSF come under attack and the food vendors in Nairobi have their packets of sugar appropriated. If the WSF is not a vehicle of struggle, not part of a program of action between these players and movements, it's telling that it becomes hobbled with expectations of something better within its very interior. Petitions and grievances from the poorest among us are starting to seem best brought to the foot of the WSF and a Left who hasn't done much for them lately and is promising nothing.

Realities like these may be one indicator for why attendance of WSF has been declining. The actions of the Nairobi activists peeled away the veneer of 'commonality within difference' to show our disabilities around actualizing a creative space in which that is possible. 'Sharing' and 'coming together' is depoliticized, missing the power at work in any space and therefore replicating it. Celebrating horizontality without situating responsibility is a dangerous omission. Under the shade of the Windsor hotel, we must admit there is a farce of solidarity.

The contradictions that surfaced through the protests taught us very little about this 'other world' we are meant to be building. How can we digest the interactions and 'solidarities' that broke down, and will continue to break down within this style of engagement?

Of course there were many important achievements made at the WSF that shouldn't be overlooked. Still, it is important to not only romanticize our solidarity, but to analyze our exclusions. If another world is possible, ways of actually creating a responsible, politicized, horizontal space on a broad scale without reinforcing the 'world that exists' are questions that linger for me post-Nairobi.