Amid the suffering in southern Africa, one event last week was a powerful sign of resistance and hope.
Around 4,000 people took part in the Southern Africa Social Forum in Harare, Zimbabwe. This was the largest event ever of its type in the region, bringing together people from South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
There were trade unionists, people with HIV, housing campaigners, campaigners for women’s rights, informal traders, disabled people, students, unemployed and many more.
The forum was a chance for them to speak out and to organise. One experience summed up the confidence that people gained during the event.
Speakers had been warned that any criticism of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe would mean that the riot police would sweep in and close down the event. We cast anxious glances at the police gathered at the edge of the main meeting.
By the end of the three days of the forum, almost everyone was calling for Mugabe to go. Half of the watching police were nodding along in agreement.
It was a fiercely radical event, directed not only against the region’s governments but against capitalism itself. The slogans with which speakers began their contributions almost always included chants such as “phansi (down with) capitalism” and “viva socialism”.
Munyaradzi Gwisai, former MP and the country’s most well-known socialist activist, told the forum, “Zimbabwe is at a crossroads. We weren’t supposed to come here and demand our markets back, our homes back, a democratic and free country.
“All the intimidation has failed. We are here and we are not going away. The rich of all parties are uniting around Mugabe. This government has made an open decision to be puppets of the IMF and World Bank.
“While there are severe food shortages and hundreds of thousands of homeless, while our hospitals are death cells and education collapses, Mugabe repays $130 million to the IMF.
“We are calling for support across the region when the trumpet of liberation sounds from here. We are going to continue the struggle in the parliament of the streets for socialism.”
Jabu Lile from South Africa’s Anti- Privatisation Forum said, “This forum is our expression of a search for a better world, for a socialist transformation and for an end to capitalism which has brought suffering to our region.”
Workers came to share their struggles and strategies. Canwell Muchadya, president of the Zimbabwe Graphical Workers Union, told how his members had taken part in two national strikes in the last 18 months. Their militancy, even in very difficult circumstances, had improved wages and conditions.
Ben Moeletsi from Botswana was greeted with chanting and applause when he said he was one of the 461 workers sacked after a strike for a fair bonus at Debswana, the firm owned jointly by the De Beers company and the government.
Ben also called for support for the struggle of the country’s Bushmen, presently facing extermination in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Dozens of people living with HIV/Aids—as 20 percent of the population in Zimbabwe aged between 15 and 49 do—gathered to discuss their situation and how to fight for their rights.
They tore into the giant pharmaceutical companies and the international institutions that defend patents and keep drug prices high.
Joyline Tarungarira said, “We call for more education, more truth about condoms and the way this disease spreads. But that is not enough without a different world where the profits of a few do not come first. I have four children, I am HIV positive and seven people in my immediate family have been taken away by Aids.
“This is an emergency which requires a revolution to end it.”
About half of the participants were women, and there were serious debates about the role of women in society, and at the forum. Virginia Setshedi said, “Women carry the brunt of capitalism. As services are cut because of privatisation and high prices, it is women who take the sick to hospital, look after the children or walk miles for clean water.
“We want to tear down this system that imprisons us. But we also demand a full role in these forums. We want more women on these forum platforms. That is the duty of organisers, but it is also the duty of us as women not to hang back, but to take our proper place.”
Her speech, made at the start of the forum, had a profound impact. In the final session more than half of those reporting back from the different stands of the forum were women.
The forum ended with a pulsating concert and poetry event. Under the stars Harare felt liberated and, as darkness gathered, a young South African rose from the crowd and delivered a powerful rap poem. It was not about Africa but about imperialism, Iraq and Palestine. A great end to a great event.
Read the summary of discussion at the forum at www.zimcodd.org