Yet many feel that this open space is closing, as the Forum becomes dominated by organisations and practices that adapt to the very political and economic system it claims to oppose. As a result, the very poor people who were supposed to reclaim their voices in the WSF open space are now losing their voices.
Such was the frustration with the Forum that its main constituency, the social movements, adopted a resolution condemning the increased commodification, privatisation and militarisation of the WSF space.
The WSF is too important for us to lose it now. Not only is another WSF possible, it is absolutely necessary to check the dangers of a unipolar world dominated by the US. Africans should be especially concerned about the WSF’s state of health, given that oil-rich African countries are starting to feel the effects of the US-led war against terror.
The US administration is using allegations of an al-Qaeda presence as a cloak behind which to extend its geo-political influence and to control the world’s most important oil supplies. In the process, opposition to US imperialism is being repressed, with all the attendant negative consequences for civil liberties.
The latest theatre of war against terror may well be South Africa, with the US administration listing two people for allegedly providing support to al-Qaeda. The absurdities of this war are also becoming evident here as well, with academic Adam Habib having been deported from the US for unspecified reasons.
The visas of his wife and two sons have also been revoked. Others too have reportedly been deported after having been "profiled". This is the danger of an untransparent listing of people ; in the process of listing al-Qaeda supporters, many innocent people can be listed too. Those opposed to US foreign policy and who have progressive politics can also be targeted, which has been the case in other countries.
As an anti-imperialist forum, the WSF is well placed to challenge the manner in which the US is abusing the war against terror. But it also needs to debate the question of what to do about reactionary organisations such as al-Qaeda, who manipulate discontent with US foreign policy.
The sorts of terror attacks engaged in by al-Qaeda must be distinguished sharply from armed struggle conducted by liberation organisations, which have a right to take up arms in highly repressive situations in terms of international law. As responses to imperialism, the two are poles apart. The US war against terror does not make such a distinction.
What is encouraging, too, is that the war against terror received some prominence at this year’s WSF, with luminaries such as Danny Glover and Archbishop Desmond Tutu warning against the repressive manner in which the war is being prosecuted. However, the WSF suffers from internal contradictions that frustrate its ability to play this critical role, and that may even paralyse the Forum in time.
Participation by poor people has become an especially important issue, as is its creeping invisibility. In order to recover the costs of holding this year’s Forum, the organisers ran it along semi-commercial lines ; those who could not afford to pay the entrance fee could not participate. This entrance fee became a highly political matter, with Kenyans feeling they were being excluded in their own backyard on economic grounds.
Every day, Kenyans gathered outside the gates of the stadium where the WSF was held to protest against their exclusion. On the second day, frustrated Kenyans stormed the gates, arguing that they should not have to pay to discuss their own poverty.
On the third day, an AK-47-toting military was called in to prevent a recurrence of day two’s events - in spite of the fact that an agreement was arrived at with the organisers about Kenyan participation being free - and arrested several Kenyans for the crime of not having an entrance pass. In response, Kenyans occupied the press conference. In another incident, protests developed about an expensive food tent owned by John Michuki, Kenya’s internal security minister. Known as "The Crusher" in Kenya, he is notorious for repressing internal dissent and ordered the raid on The Standard newspaper and KTN television in March last year.
The high cost of transport to the venue, as well as food and drink, also proved to be a barrier to Kenyan participation. Private companies were given exclusive contracts to provide commercial services at the WSF in an opaque manner, leading to many accusations of graft. Many felt that the more well-resourced nongovernmental organisations dominated.
These problems underlined the fact that the WSF operates without a set of organising principles that would protect the open space rather than selling it to the highest bidder. Kenyan participation was not just a "nice to have" ; it was absolutely necessary to deepen thinking about tackling the more repressive tendencies of anti-terrorism measures. Kenyans have rich experiences in this regard, as they have experienced both sides of the terrorism equation.
The labelling of the Mau Mau national liberation struggle as terrorist in colonial times led to the torture and murder of many Kenyans, who launched a reparations case in Britain last year to secure compensation. Following the removal of President Daniel Arap Moi from office in 2003, Kenyan landless women spearheaded a Mau Mau resurgence for collective land entitlements and against corporate control of the country’s most fertile land.
Perversely, many of these uprisings have been crushed by the very Crusher who profiteered from the WSF, leading to even more Kenyan anger against the Forum.
More recently, and in spite of the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, in which many innocent Kenyans died, mass Kenyan protests stopped the passage of an anti-terrorism bill. In mid-2003, the Daily Nation reported on rising mass protests at what is seen as Washington’s bullying tactics against Kenya. Their citizens know that the US and Kenyan governments would use the bill mainly to quell discontent against neo-liberal policies in Kenya.
They also know that protection of civilians against right-wing attacks is merely a subsidiary objective of the bill. The insights that Kenyans could have brought to the WSF on these matters could have enriched its deliberations, but it failed to galvanise the anti-imperialist wave in its own backyard. All social movements are the poorer for it.
The WSF has important work to do in resisting the recolonisation of Africa’s resources under the guise of the war against terror. An anti-imperialist alternative is needed to channel the growing anti-American sentiment in a progressive direction, otherwise the space will be left open for groups like al-Qaeda.
This is why South Africans must care about whether another WSF is possible, and must work tirelessly to make it possible.
Jane Duncan is the director of the Freedom of Expression Institute