Africa looks to Mbeki to effect social change

SMILING THROUGH: Delegates from the world Social Forum in Kenya demonstrete in support of women's rights. The forum was first held in Brazil in 2001 and coincide each year with the World Economic Forum of political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Pic. Sayyid Azim. 23/01/2007. © AP
SMILING THROUGH: Delegates from the world Social Forum in Kenya demonstrete in support of women's rights. The forum was first held in Brazil in 2001 and coincide each year with the World Economic Forum of political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Pic. Sayyid Azim. 23/01/2007. © AP

Ido Lekota

Ido Lekota

Today President Thabo Mbeki, accompanied by Trade Minister Mandisi Mpahlwa and Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, will leave for Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The four-day forum, under the banner Shaping the Global Agenda, is scheduled to run until Sunday. The presence of Mbeki and other African leaders at the WEF is part of the drive to promote North-South cooperation in support of Africa's development agenda.

In this regard Mbeki will tomorrow participate in a session titled Africa Sets a New Pace.

The WEF provides a unique opportunity for leaders from business, government, the media and academia to shape the global agenda.

For example, this year's focus is on driving economic growth and improving sustainable development.

There has, however, been wide criticism of the WEF.

One has been that the WEF was moving away from serious economics and becoming a media circus that allows celebrities and politicians to have "feel-good" discussions about various political causes while accomplishing little that is of substance.

A key criticism has been that the forum was driving an agenda controlled by developed countries with interests that perpetuated underdevelopment in poverty-stricken regions, including Africa.

This is one of the reasons why, in the past, the WEF sessions in Davos have been marred by violent protests by social activists who argue that the initiative does not go far enough towards dealing with the continuing inequalities.

Of significance is that as the world leaders converge on Davos today, thousands of kilometres away in Nairobi, Kenya, social activists will be wrapping up their discussions at the World Social Forum (WSF), focusing on the challenges faced by underdeveloped countries.

They want leaders meeting in Davos to concentrate on how the world's poor can get basic social services such as water, sanitation, health and education.

They want world leaders to tackle, among other issues, the fact that African countries spend about R112billion a year repaying loan debts.

This happens on a continent where more than half of the population lives on less than R7 a day. The contingency of social activists believe that this situation could be reversed if governments spent more money on healthcare, education and other public service sectors, rather than on debt repayment.

Desmond Tutu, speaking at the World Social Forum, said the failure by African governments to spend more on social services, such as healthcare, has cost millions of lives.

He pointed out that the African governments' failure to deliver on the commitment to spend 15percent of their budgets on health has cost 40million lives. This commitment was made at the African Union summit in Nigeria in 2001.

"It is very possible that our continent will die out before our eyes. This is no exaggeration," Tutu said in an open letter to African heads-of-state delivered at the social forum.

He said millions of Africans die from preventable diseases. It is estimated that malaria kills more than one million Africans a year, nearly 90percent of the global total, his petition said.

Of concern is that this situation perpetuates underdevelopment because it deprives the affected countries of economic resources such as labour.

Also, these countries' commitment to debt reduction undermines their ability to adequately finance important social programmes.

They are then trapped in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment and poverty.

The first World Social Forum held in Africa started on Friday and ends today.

As part of the opening ceremony the organisers marched through Kibera squatter camp in Nairobi.

According to media reports the squalor in which Kibera's 80000 inhabitants live sums up everything that the WSF is all about.

Sanitation and water services are grossly inadequate and there are just four publicly funded schools for the 500000 people of school-going age.

Among the participants in the march were ordinary citizens and activists who had a range of immediate concerns - including land rights, the scourge of HIV-Aids, access to selling goods to foreign markets, women's rights and many more.

One participant, according to Reuters, Margaret Sipho, involved in a campaign for free water, was concerned that the poor must pay for bottled water or drink from taps where the water is a health hazard.

This, she said, was a terrible dilemma for mothers and their children.

"Should the mothers feed their children from the little they have or buy water?" she asked.

Rosanna from Zambia was part of a delegation of vegetable growers.

She said: "We work very hard to produce goods for export to Tesco and Sainsbury's [UK supermarkets], but we receive only a tiny fraction of the selling price. Here [at WSF] I know everyone is on our side against the system that keeps us poor."

Some demonstrators raised concerns about the US' involvement in the current Somalian conflict. Their feeling was that the US was once more trying to impose its will on African people. This, they said, was more especially so because it uses the conflict to impose its anti-terrorist war in a manner that sets Africans against other Africans.

According to Reuters, the most moving input during one of the sessions at the WSF came from Francis Nyambura, who lives in Kibera.

She told a meeting of trade unionists: "We live in a different world in Kibera, a world of poverty and violence and hopelessness.

"Things that should be human rights are impossible dreams. We ask the movement [WSF] across the world to be in solidarity with us."

These are the challenges that leaders like Mbeki must confront and come up with suggested solutions when they meet in Davos today, otherwise the WEF will just be another expensive talkshop.