Mzonke Poni on the World Social Forum

Another World is Possible

Reflections and Criticisms on the World Social Forum, 2009, in Belem, Brazil

Mzonke Poni at the WSF in Belem, Brazil

The Road to Brazil

My long trip started on the 20th January 2009 when I traveled from Cape Town to Durban by bus. I spent 26 hours on a City to City bus, moving from Cape Town via PE, East London and Umtata and then to Durban. As much as it was a long journey I must say it I really enjoyed it. I think it was nice touring my own country, getting the opportunity to be exposed to different corners of South Africa from Cities and Townships to Rural areas where the poorest of the poor are located as a result of the past.

As the bus goes from one City to the other you get to know the reality of the country and all the divisions of our society are displayed. You just see the difference between those who have and those who do not have. The gap between the poor and the rich is displayed very clearly.

While you are driving around Cities you see that there is everything from shopping malls, universities, schools, clinics, police stations, electricity, adequate public toilets, banks and beautiful (and expensive) houses.

But once you are more than 30 kilometres away from the Cities you will see poorly built houses made out of mud. They are close to the mountains and with few access roads and with no electricity, water taps or proper roads. When reaching theses areas you get to see the reality of life in our country and to witness the fact that divisions of the past are still dominant in South Africa. The minority still continue enjoying the freedom while freedom still remains a dream for the majority.

I arrived at Durban on the 21st January 2009 at around 20:45. When getting inside the town you go ‘wow’. It’s amazing and very beautiful with lot more high buildings than Cape Town. Of course it’s less friendly than Cape Town. It is also more complicated than Cape Town as well. But the challenges are still the same. It’s not amazing at all to find that the poor are also packed just outside the City in shack settlements which are very dense and which have no access roads at all. As a result people in these shack settlements have been the victims of fires each and every year. Life in Durban’s informal settlements is very frustrating because mostly they are outside the town and the are no recreational facilities nearby the people – no libraries around, no clinics around, no police stations around, nothing around at all.

When getting inside the area you will see the same people that you will see when leaving the area. It is very difficult to get to know people apart from people that are living at the area. Cape Town is a very busy busy place from townships to cities, from informal settlements to formal settlements and people are using areas just to pass from one area to the other, you don’t need to go out of the area or to town if you want to mix or interact with different people. I think this form of interaction opens up people’s minds through sharing of ideas and getting to know other people at the personal level. It gives you social satisfactions because you don’t have limited choices in terms of choosing who you want to socialize with. I think this aspect of life also needs to be recognized as a right not as privilege, as a freedom of socializing with all walks of life with out limitations that are being imposed by geographic locations, socio-economic circumstances and all the political divisions that separate people.

29th January 2009: The way to Brazil

Early on this morning I was little bit nervous, of course. But I was also overwhelmed by the opportunity to leave the country for the first time. But I was not sure of what to expect and I said ‘thanks God’ because I was not traveling alone. I was with my comrade from Durban – the deputy President of Abahlali baseMjondolo – Lindela ‘Mashumi’ Figlan.

I was also very curious to see which Cities and Countries we would pass while flying to Brazil and I thought this might expose me to just being able to see other African Countries. But to my surprise from Johannesburg we just crossed the deserts of Botswana and Mozambique and then after that we went straight to the sea. So I just decided to make use of entertainment facilities of the flight till we reached Sao Paulo in Brazil.

The arrival

It was amazing because we left the country just past ten in the morning and I was told that this is one of the longest routes to fly. But to my surprise we arrived at Brazil the same day at around past 4 in the afternoon.

When landing at Sao Paulo it was amazing for the first time to see such a wide city which is also very dense and immediately my mind made a connection with the work of Paulo Freire and I just said ‘wow this is what inspired Freire’s work and methodologies on popular education’. I also made connections between South African housing practices and international practices, and it become clear to me why Lindiwe Sisulu, the Minister for Housing, is very frustrated with the delays and challenges that are facing her flagship project of N2 Gateway Housing Project in Cape Town. She wants to comply with ‘international standards’, by ‘clearing slums’ that are at next to highways, airports, and along all major routes, by forcefully relocating people that are living at these areas to human dumping grounds outside cities. She doesn’t care what the City looks like to the poor who live there every day. She cares what it looks like to people who fly in to visit.


Just after landing we encountered problems with communication. It became very difficult for us to interact with local people, or even to ask for directions and etc. On our arrival at Sao Paulo the first thing we wanted to do was to buy privatized water as we were instructed by our travelling clinics not to drink unbottled water. At the airport there were lots of stalls selling food, drinks, snacks and etc, so we went to ask how much bottled water cost 500ml, hey! As we asked in English everybody was laughing at us and speaking a language that we didn’t understand. The only thing we could do was to lift up our shoulders, open our hands, smile and say ‘we don’t know’. When they spoke again we’d show them water through the glass, nod our hands and give them US dollars. And again they’ll say something that we didn’t understand until we decided to leave them and go to the other stall. And the same thing happened! On the third stall they gave us a hand signal saying that we must wait while they tried to find someone who understands a little bit of English. It was then explained to us that they don’t trade with US dollars and that we first change our dollars to Brazilian currency. But at that time all the foreign exchange places were closed, so we had to continue with our trip till to Belem, without interacting with local people. At the internal flights the situation was the same.

Guys that were coming from Mozambique were quite comfortable in Brazil. They just felt at home, interacting freely and it was very difficult for them to fill us in because they also couldn’t understand English. As a result of that they decided to distance themselves from us. After they distanced themselves Lindela said ‘Qabane, we should not worry. 2010 is coming and people from all these countries will be in South Africa. I can see now that people are more friendly to people that they were colonized with or by. When 2010 is in South Africa it will be our turn to be more friendly to Britain and all the people colonized by Britain.’

The 30th of January or Day One in Brazil at the Hotel

We woke up just after 7 early in the morning and we had a breakfast at the hotel. We had the opportunity to meet activist of the MST that were coming from Sao Paolo. Lucky some of them could speak little bit of English and they made our stay there at the hotel a little bit easier because we could interact with other people through their assistance through translation. With the help of the MST comrades we were able to share the struggles of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement of South Africa with other activist from throughout the globe.

It was a pleasant experience to share a hotel with comrades from around the world. We were very pleased that managed to build relationships with people from Palestine, which enable us to understand the feelings and the frustrations of the people of Gaza and the conditions caused by Israeli apartheid.

It was very good also to share a room with comrades from MST. That enabled me to develop a better understanding of MST as a social movement in Brazil’s context and to be able to translate that into the South African context of organizing. It was good to understand the social movement perspective on a global level. I thought this sharing of experiences of movements involved in a mass based resistance was only to Latin America. But to my surprise 5 days later I met with other activists that are coming from Zambia, Southern Africa and they also confirmed the same practices of resistance that are dominant in Latin America are as relevant and dominant in Zambia.

During Lunch Time

On day one at the hotel nothing was clear and also we were not clear with the system of Brazil. So during the lunch we went to the kitchen for lunch as my comrade was dying out of hunger and we were told that it’s only breakfast that is included in our hotel bill and that we were responsible for our own lunch and supper. At this time we were still having dollars not Brazilian money and so we couldn’t trade at all. We decided to take a walk through the streets of Brazil and we went to the park, at the park there were these long trees of mango and there was a guy taking them off the tree using a long pole with an open cap to catch the mangos from the tree. When we passed him he said something in Portuguese and I replied ‘we don’t know’. He said ‘mango’ and I said yes and he gave us a mango which was yellow, sweet, cool and delicious. We were so happy that he gave us the other one. When we left we said thank you and he wanted money. I showed him by hands that we don’t have money and he laughed and said ok. We then left him with, at least, something in our stomachs.

The Weather

The weather was very, very hot. But although it was very hot there was no sun. It was amazing, because all of a sudden it would rain very hard but that would not last long, and people would just go crazy in the rain, really enjoying it. They’ll be wet and within a few hours they’ll dry out as if they were never wet. During the first day of the February, which was the following day, one of our friends from South Africa tried it and the next day she was sick and had to be taken to the hospital, and then from hospital to the private doctor.

The weather was the same till we came back to South Africa and I had to buy an Umbrella. In Belem in March you need to carry your umbrella wherever you go if you are scared of the rain. This is what I was doing because I knew very well that it will be very, very cheap to get flu – you’ll not even have to pay anything – but when wanting to cure it will be very expensive.

The Economy

Wow, it was an awful experience to see the poor participating in the economy. It was awful because it is just the opposite of what South African government is doing to us in South Africa for 2010. In Belem people participate freely but at home the government is evicting poor people who are selling at corners of different streets, especially those that are selling at centre of towns where there will be major events for 2010.

At Brazil the hotels only provide bed and breakfast. The guests are responsible for their own lunch and supper which is available at the stalls just outside the hotel – not at registered restaurants just an ordinary stall. That would never be allowed in South Africa.

People just come up with just their food to sell and chairs. People are doing this freely and are not being intimidated by the police or big businesses or by anyone. The worst part of it is people are free to sell alcohol without the licenses that only benefit reach people.

I think South Africa needs to learn a lot from Brazil in terms of practices because both countries are third world developing countries. What we have to learn goes beyond the economic practices. It is clear that the health infrastructure of Brazil is far better than in South Africa. Their housing approach is also better. It was amazing to see shacks within the city in Brazil, something that South African government would have been very emotional about. Lastly their transport system is also much better. I was amazed by the bicycles which are being used as means of transport by poor people, others were even using them to transport people locally to earn something for themselves.

From the First Day of the World Social Forum

The first day of World Social Forum was on the 1st of February, just after our second day in Belem. It started with a march. It was anticipated that more than 150 000 people participated in the march, which started after noon just next to the Amazon river, where people and different cultures met. It was very overwhelming to get an opportunity to see all the different cultures that exist in Brazil. Brazil it’s more or less the same as South Africa in terms of this – it is also a rainbow nation.

As much as it was an overwhelming experience to participate in the World Social Forum it was not impressive at all. Because the first day of the forum set the tone for the whole of the forum, and it was clear that the forum would be dominated by NGO’s/Academics and by Latin America.

Other people that were not coming from Latin America were unconsciously excluded from the forum, as there were no interpreters at the forum at all, and it was very difficult for people who were coming from outside Latin America to follow speeches or activities that were taking place in the forum from day one of the forum. It was made clear that it was not the responsibility of the organizers to organize interpreters for people, it was people’s responsibility to organize their own interpreters and it was very difficult for us to get that as there was no prior arrangements made. This was a pity. In our struggles in South Africa we have many different languages but our movements always take responsibility for organizing translation – especially for visitors. Of course the NGOs in South Africa want to do everything in English but not the movements.

I must say that in certain cases we were quite lucky as there was people that didn’t mind to translate for us, but that also limited our freedom to chose to participate in the programs that were relevant to the struggles of Abahlali and to South African context. We had to stick most of the time with people who were willing to translate for us and we had to change our program completely and to adjust ourselves to their programs irrespective of their relevance to our struggles or to the South African context.

As much as people were doing their best to accommodate us, it was not at all easy for us. In fact it wasn’t easy for the people helping us either because most of the time people that were willing to accommodate us were not coming from Latin America and they also had challenges in terms of translations as they couldn’t translate for us properly. It was very difficult for us to participate at most of the sessions that we have attended because of language limitations.

We also participated at the march of MST during the day of the address from four presidents from Latin America where Chavez spoke. But we had the same problem with translation again. You could see that people were quite excited about Chavez’s intervention. In his speech he disclosed that Barack Obama had came out to him and he said that Chavez is problematic and that he does not like him. Chavez also emphasized that the other world is not just possible but it is necessary.

As much as people were very impress by his speech myself I was not impressed at all by the practices that I had seen – the practices of dictatorship, dominance and general top down approaches. I thought that this was a radical space and that, therefore, the event would create space for activists to debate issues and engage with the four presidents that were present. I had thought that people would be able to influence each other directly. But instead it was business as usual. It was just another rally for big men to speak to little people, it was just another opportunity for the presidents to run another talk show and then leave. It was no different to how our politicians behave at home. This is one of the reasons why we have refused to vote for them any more.

In my view this technique whereby big men lecture the people in stadiums is politically based. It the technique that is being used by the politicians when they want to get or remain in power by demonstrating to people their abilities so that people can believe in them as their leaders. They want to look as if they are relevant people for particular positions and so they do this pretence of engaging with people but in reality they are not engaging with people. A real engagement with the people, well, that should be a two way process in which certain problems are being identified through dialogue and reflections and alternative solutions are being explored collectively. It can not be a one way process.

Even the process that is being favoured by the majority of people is very problematic. This is the process where people engaging with politicians by asking questions or stating problems and politicians are given an opportunity to respond. But in fact this process is very manipulative and undemocratic. The politicians they use it in a manner where people will feel that they have be listened to at and their frustrations have been heard.

But the problem with this process is that there’s nothing that is equal. The politicians have got the power and the people do not have it. Those with the power, the politicians, are being viewed as those that know everything. That is why people are told to ask questions and not to make statements, or come up with alternatives. They are viewed as empty vessels. This approach is similar to what Freire calls the banking approach.

In our movements we insist that everyone is equal and we work on that basis. We think together. Everyone discusses and debates together. We never have one person on a stage taking questions. If there are too many people for everyone to participate in a discussion then we just break up into groups and work it like that. This is a democratic approach. If Chavez or any other president came to Abahlali he (or she) would be welcome to participate in the discussions that we are having but as one comrade amongst other comrades. Really, I think that this is a better approach.


The World Social Forum was a success, due to the fact that many people participated in it and because local people supported it. It also created opportunities to expose the consciousness of local people (Brazilians) to the reality of market based and global based financial policies, which disadvantage the working class people.

But as much as the Forum was a success there was still a difference, a big difference between those who have and those who does not have. This difference remained a serious problem at the Forum due to the fact that people who managed to participate at the event, especially those that were coming from outside Latin America were mostly people that were coming from NGOs. Only very few people come from grass roots movements. The Forum says that ‘another world is possible’ but it itself is not another world. In most cases oppressed people are denied the opportunity to be part of an influential global process like this. So the forum becomes a space for an NGO elite to debate and discuss on behalf of the poor and not a space for poor people’s struggles to debate and discuss for themselves.

New ways of incorporating genuine activists and genuine movements need to be created, to ensure that the struggle of the working class is taken forward by the working class. If we do not address the power imbalance in terms of controlling resources for international mobilization the middle class people and academics who associate themselves with the working class people in terms of ideas will remain as the main forces that drives and control the struggle of the poor. The poor will remain marginalized and making noise at different corners of the streets while NGOs and academics travel the world to speak for them.

And we all know that most poor people’s movements have rejected those NGOs that want to be their bosses. For this we have been called criminals. If the NGOs and academics are serious about equality, about making another world a reality, they should stay at home and sponsor the movements in their countries to elect their own representatives to go to the forum.


It was a good thing for ABM to send activists to participate at the WSF. We found that we had to represent not only our ten thousand members, not only South Africa but even the entire Africa. Our presence gave us opportunity to interact with representatives from other African countries and we had opportunity to consolidate solidarity with our brothers and sisters who were recently victimized by South Africans and labelled as foreigners and kwere-kweres. As a movement this was very important for us.

Our presence also created opportunity for us to build concrete relationships with some of influential Latin American grassroots based movements who are well known through Latin America and world wide. We became especially close to MST. This will give us future opportunities to interact more with these movements and to exchange ideas and build more solidarity world wide. Hopefully one day we will be able to create a situation where grassroots movements from around the world can meet each other regularly and directly – a movement forum and not an NGO forum.

As much as we couldn’t come up with programs for the Forum in advance we were able, through our activeness during our stay at Belem, to manage to show our presence at the Forum. We were recognized by many NGO’s/Academics and progressive donors and by the media as well. We were quoted in some local and national newspapers and we even participated in a documentary which will be screened in Latin and North America. All this is good. Our attendance at the Forum was very much worth while. But we must still say that because ‘another world is necessary’ therefore it follows that ‘another Forum is necessary.’

By: Mzonke Poni
ABM Western Cape Chairperson
073 2562 036