By Thandi Winston and Souleymane Faye*
DAKAR, Feb 6 – Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Dakar on Sunday to mark the start of the annual World Social Forum. Activists carried colorful banners denouncing land grabs, restrictive immigration laws, agricultural subsidies in Europe and the U.S. and many other issues.
Others sang freedom songs and played drums whilst marching peacefully through the streets along a route that began near the offices of Senegal’s public broadcaster, RTS, and ended at the Cheikh Anta Diop University, the main venue for the weeklong gathering.
Bolivian president Evo Morales, who took part in the march, invited his counterparts from poor countries to take part in this event.
“There must be awareness and a mobilisation to put an end to capitalism and clear away invaders, neocolonialists and imperialists […] I support the popular uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt. These are signs of change,” said Morales, a former trade union leader who is a regular participant in anti-globalisation movement gatherings.
“There must be resistance and awareness. There must be a programme of social struggle to build a new world,” he said.
“We must save humanity, and to do that, we must know our enemies. The enemies of the people are neocolonialists and imperialists. We must put an end to the capitalist model and put another in its place. It’s necessary to get rid of the rich and change the world.”
The mayor of Dakar welcomed participants, but more senior members of the Senegalese government were absent; President Abdoulaye Wade himself is out of the country, though he is scheduled to take part in an event alongside the Brazilian president later in the week.
With close to fifty thousand people attending the Forum, Thandi Winston reports, chaos is emerging over finding venues for the myriad sessions.
One source in WSF’s organising committee told IPS that the Vice Chancellor of the Cheikh Anta Diop University cancelled most of the Forum’s bookings of rooms on the campus.
The World Social Forum defines itself as an open space where those “opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking.”
As this year’s event is being held in Senegal, many of the discussions will revolve around what organisers term the crisis of civilisation and capitalism gripping Africa and the rest of the world.
“This forum must contribute to changing the world. It’s a chance for all those who represent the world’s downtrodden to speak amongst themselves,” said Senegalese historian Boubacar Diop Buuba, a professor at the Cheikh Anta Diop University.
Philip Kumah, a Ghanaian social worker who works for Amnesty International, said, “We are calling for an end to injustice in our country where the government is robbing communities of their land. This forum is a chance for our government to lend an attentive ear to our complaints.”
For activist Beverley Keene, from Buenos Aires, holding the forum in Africa is an important milestone. “It’s our time to learn from each other and assess the impact that the financial crisis and the looting of the people’s minerals have on livelihoods.”
The financial crisis is prominent among the themes to be debated at the six-day forum seeking alternatives to “the crisis of the capitalist system.”
Italian feminist Sabrina Viche said the event is also an opportunity to listen to African women. “I came to Dakar to give my support to all the women of Africa, who struggle to ensure their voices are heard, I want to hear from them what their struggles are and how we in the North can support them.”
But it is not enough to just meet, Canet Raphael, a sociologist from Montréal, Canada, told IPS. “People must know what a social forum is for. The spirit of the World Social Forum has its roots in grassroots social movements.”
Thierry Tulasne, who works on migration issues for a Canadian organisation said, “I’m not sure that social movements can change the world in the near future. But I am sure that little drops of water eventually become rivers.”
*Ebrima Sillah and Koffigan Adigbli in Dakar contributed to this report.