International: Witnessing the WSF

While snowflakes, whiteness and first world wealth provided the backdrop to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos early this year, across the continent, social movements and trade unions braved poverty, dirt and disease in India’s Mumbai to attend the World Social Forum. Numsa general secretary, Silumko Nondwangu, attended and gives his first hand experiences.

You went representing IMF, can anyone from any affiliate attend, do you have to be accredited?

Yes, you have to be accredited, for example if you are part of Cosatu you have to be accredited through the federation. I was accredited through the IMF.

Can Cosatu say to WSF, ‘we want 100 seats’ or are they allocated?

They send as many people as they can. Every social movement can apply to the steering committee and be allocated a conference room to run a seminar on this project.

How do they organise what issues will be discussed at the conference?

There is a world steering committee/council. Different social movements request the topics they want at the forum. For example, issues of indigenous peoples, trade unions, women, rural issues, sector specific issues.

How does the conference function?

There were about 200 workshops per day attended from 50 up to 1000 people.

Which workshops stand out in your mind?

I attended primarily the IMF-organised ones. There was one on sustainable jobs and development. Another one was organised by the Indian Confederation of Trade Unions on uniting the working class against globalisation. Of particular importance was a mass rally organised by the International Trade Secretariats (ITS’) from all over the world which I addressed. It was attended by 8000 workers. I think we cannot underestimate the extent to which events in Cancun and Seattle (World Trade Organisation meetings) have pushed world trade unions to participate in the WSF. I think this was different from Porto Alegre (where the last WSF was held). There were quite a number of ITS’ attending and their role was much more prominent distributing material, organising different functions.

The sense I get is that when the WSF was first set up it was dominated by social movements. Do you think that labour has put its stamp on it now?

There was a remarkable improvement in this last social forum. What happened is that before this one, they had an Indian social forum where Indian trade unions played a more important role. In Europe they also did this.

Is there an African Social Forum?

There is an African Social Forum. It is divided according to languages. Francophone speaking countries met before Mumbai. In southern Africa, there was also a meeting before Mumbai. Cosatu has not been playing a strategic role in that regard because here it is predominantly driven by social movements, Trevor Ngwane (from the Anti-Privatisation Forum) and others. And therefore the role of the federation has been minimal in that regard.

Is that likely to change?

Yes, I think it’s likely to change. As Numsa and the international relations officer of Cosatu, we submitted a report after Porto Alegre arguing very strongly that it was important not only for the leadership of the federation but also for affiliates to send people to Mumbai. We will do that once again in the next meeting of the federation.

What did you learn from the WSF?

It’s about learning from others, getting to understand your own struggles and how you would execute them in the context of the serious difficulties that exist in many parts of the world.

Were any calls for action made?

On the closing day we had a huge rally with about 50 000 people. It constituted two things – a call for us to unite, a call for solidarity on March 20 against the occupation of Iraq and in April against the negative effects of globalisation and the WTO.

What is the responsibility of shop stewards on these two days?

They must ensure that there will be demonstrations at their plants or perhaps run workshops or seminars for about 30 minutes to 1 hour explaining to shop stewards, workers. Over time international struggles and the issues related to WTO and UN have become abstract to ordinary workers, they don’t have a direct bearing whereas in the long term they do. We need to give a much broader picture of how the impact of decisions that are taken at global institutions affects us.

In India , if there is space, it is space to create slums!

Mumbai through the eyes of the GS…

What were your impressions of India ?

I thought that we were faced with insurmountable challenges but if you want to understand the ravages of globalisation, you must go to India . One day I listened to BBC to an interview between an economist and someone from the UN debating the extent of poverty, a comparison between Rio and Mumbai – the economist was saying Mumbai was better. Having been in Mumbai, I disagreed with him. It’s terrible poverty.

What images stick in your mind?

Images of people where you feel that they are dehumanised, they have lost their being. They are sleeping in the streets, unprotected.

There are people living in the street just around the corner from Numsa’s head office. What is the difference?

You are talking about millions in India .

So it’s the scale of it?

Yes the scale and the millions of kids. Going to and from the hotel and conference venue by car, we saw a 6-year old carrying a 2-year old begging. That is not an unfamiliar sight. Also the degradation of the environment. How the country is so polluted, how water is so contaminated. If this situation is not addressed in the next decade in India , it is going to become one of the major problems that kills people in India .

But also the extremes that exist. I stayed at the Holiday Inn. It’s a palace if you were to contrast it with the conditions that surround the palace. Just to look out of the window is unbelievable!

I am told that well-educated professionals when they get married at age 20 to 25, because of the unavailability of land and skyrocketing property costs, are compelled to go and stay in the slums. These slums are something that you can’t describe. We’ve got better, Alexandra is better. Everywhere you go in India , if there is space, it is space to create slums.

So you don’t find markets on the streets?

Yes you do but next to them, people are sleeping there. On every street corner you find a small shop. As a result of the inward looking nature of the Indian economy, 70% of the economy is based on small and medium enterprises. And they are workaholics. Business runs for 24 hours – there is extreme exploitation. Despite that comrades argue that there are progressive pieces of legislation.

The WSF is a gathering of social movements from all over the world that come together on an annual basis to discuss the effects of globalisation, what are the struggles being fought at local and national level and how best do social movements ensure that they harness that energy to develop appropriate responses to the global environment.

It is timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum (WEF) that takes place each year in Davos , Switzerland .

Social movements, trade unions, other invited guests from progressive governments, social democratic parties and United Nations representatives attend the WSF.