”Tension developed at the People’s Summit when some participants expressed frustration with the approach of the organisers, which seemed to be confined to submitting memoranda once a year to regional state officials.” -Ronald Wesso works for Afrikagrupperna’s partner organization SPP, Surplus People Project. This is his reflection on the Southern African People’s Solidarity Network (SAPSN)
The People’s Summit was a gathering called by the Southern Africa People’s Solidarity Network (SAPSN) in Lilongwe, Malawi on 16 and 17 August parallel to the Heads of State and Government Summit called by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the same city. Both events are annual, and the theme of the People’s Summit this year was ’Reclaiming SADC for People’s Development and Solidarity: Ensuring our Natural Resources Benefit the People…’
There was a telling moment in the commission discussing ’agriculture, land ownership and food sovereignty in SADC’. As people were sharing experiences and formulating demands to put into the communiqué, a woman brought the proceeding to a standstill by saying, ’Wait a minute comrades. These are the same things we said in the communiqué that we submitted in Angola in 2011. Let us look at that communiqué and ask ourselves how many of those demands were listened to. None!’ After a stunned silence participants started agreeing that this was not a problem of 2011 only, but that in all the years of submitting these communiqués the heads of state have consistently ignored them. Are summits like these – and by extension SAPSN itself – a waste of time and money?
The tension around SAPSN in Malawi could be understood as the conflict between two different, though overlapping, models of striving for social change – the liberal civil society model and the radical movement building model. The liberal civil society model of striving for social change commits change agents to work within the rules and structures set up by capitalist states and this model is often led by lawyers, researchers and other middle class people empowered to function within those kinds of spaces. The radical movement building model seeks to prioritise the democratic self-organisation and direct action of the labouring and marginalised masses and is not in principle bound by the rules of capitalist society. Of course, although ultimately opposed, these models have often appeared in combination in the same movement seemingly complementing each other. However, in the neo-liberal era the liberal civil society model have proven to be stripped of any semblance of effectiveness.
Within this approach a gathering such as the People’s Summit could be extremely useful. Its value would not be to serve as a platform from which skilled speakers and writers can persuade the heads of states to adopt pro-poor policies, nor would it be as a space where the promoters of radical ideologies can persuade and recruit a few more activists to their particular ideological views and projects. Its value would be in the contribution it could make to building movements in the place where it takes place. This has been the main, and often over looked, benefit of the World Social Forum.
The key focus of the summit would be to understand and contribute to movement building in Malawi. Writers could have focused on describing and analysing the civil society organisations and movements in Malawi – the issues that the comrades confront, their strength, the actions they are planning and the support they need. Speakers could have assisted with facilitating popular education sessions for movement building. Instead of meeting in a hotel and marching to an out of sight nature reserve we could have had public meetings, walk-abouts and leafleting in the poor communities. Malawian movements could have taking important steps forward with the help of the energy, political clarity, public attention and resources they would have gained from such regional solidarity efforts. This is the approach that will maximise the impact of the next SAPSN summit. It is well within SAPSN’s capacity. The main thing now is to adopt this orientation toward radical movement building as the strategy to fight for social change.