A week of hope and despair

2011-02-16 00:00

LAST week, I attended the World Social Forum (WSF) in Dakar, Senegal, where I heard delegates from over 100 countries talk about the plight of the poor and even middle classes all over the world.

This gathering of civil society formations followed closely after the much-vaunted gathering of the rich, the famous and powerful at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF attracted over 1 400 business leaders from old and emerging economies, 35 heads of state, including President Jacob Zuma, as well as some leaders of organised labour, civil society and the media.

The Dakar meeting was remarkable for its egalitarian feel. Meetings took place in dusty tents pitched on the grounds of the Cheikh Anta Diop University. Members of parliament, political party leaders and a few ministers traded their luxuries for dusty tents which were used for meetings and for boarding.

While both Senegal and Switzerland are small, self-made countries, the former is poor and dilapidated partly due to the vagaries of the current economic system, while the latter is a major beneficiary of the system. Hence, the two meetings reflected these geo-economics.

In Davos, the overriding concern was to make the current system work better by intensifying economic growth, containing inflation and stabilising commodity prices. Concessions were made for greening the economy and ensuring inclusion of the previously excluded.

In contrast, in Dakar the general consensus was that the current global economic system has many fundamental problems, chief among which are joblessness, poor economic growth, inequality, poverty, climate change, disease and poor countries' external debts (not just the sovereign debts in troubled rich economies). So, the system needs to be transformed rather than reformed.

In the dusty tents, the issue of balancing improved economic development and environmental good governance was debated. In this regard, the critical roles of agrarian transformation, alternative energy, and technology transfer were brought up.

The links between political conditions and economic development that revolutions in the Arab world represented and which the people of Palestine, the Saharawi Republic, the San and other endangered minority groups also epitomised, were discussed. The delegates called for deeper social democracy.

The matter of climate change focused on the responsibility of highly industrialised countries to ensure that in contrast to Copenhagen and Cancun, the Durban conference in November will produce a binding agreement.

Socioeconomic rights, access to health and education as well as the importance of workers' rights were debated. Again, the current system's focus on production and consumption was seen as inimical to concern about human dignity.

For one week, people's unwavering commitment to building a world order that is more caring, more just and fairer, as well as the spirit of oneness with peoples as vastly different as the Inuit of Canada, the Haitans and the poor of Europe, permeated the atmosphere.

Back in South Africa, as Zuma confidently delivered the State of the Nation address, I wondered if the ideas shared and plans made make any sense to the downtrodden who featured prominently in Dakar discussions where South Africa was only represented by civil society. I wondered if our government, which was well represented in Davos, had a better sense of what the rich need, hence the underlying idea of inclusive growth, than of the scepticism in civil society about the system.

The focus on job creation, fixing education and service delivery resonated in Dakar and thus raises hope in the midst of despair.

But then many governments have great visions but lack state capacity to translate these into reality. Sadly, this is a fundamental challenge for the post-apartheid state, one that may be its undoing. The cancer of incompetence and corruption pervades the state. Tenderpreneurs will have a big slice of the new funding announced to create jobs. Many public servants will go back to business as usual and many politicians will focus on luxuries and the next elections.

In May, local government elections will bring more parasites into the system, people selected for anything but their public spirit and commitment to public service. Promises will not change the situation of the poor in villages, slums and townships.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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