This week will see the 6th World Social Forum on Migrations (WSFM) coming to Africa: The organizers expect up to 3000 participants gathering in Johannesburg from 5th to 8th December 2014. However, in the past weeks updates on the event had been scarce and after the city of Johannesburg announced to pull out of the event on November 21, participants started getting concerned. In our interview, Aline Mugisho from the local organizing committee (LOC) talks about the challenges the organizers faced, how they tried to overcome and what participants can expect from the 4-day-event.
Aline Mugisho is Public Relations Officer for the African Diaspora Forum and the spokesperson for the Local Organising Committee of the 6th WSFM (Communication and International Relations) Currently she holds a Ph.D. scholarship at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt. The interview did not take place in Germany, however, but via Skype between Freiburg-Johannesburg.
Q (Stefan Rother): Aline, first of all: What can you tell prospective participants of the WSFM?
Aline Mugisho: I can tell them that they should not be worried, the conference is going to happen and it will be a successful one.
Q: What problems did the organisation of the WSFM face, why did the city pull out?
AM: We had to work under very difficult conditions. While the city government had announced that they would support the WSFM, the city officials were not very committed to the process and were not fond to work with migrant-led organisations. They were also pushing their own goals, and favoured an organisation they had worked together with in the past while insisting on their preference to work with South Africans. There were also some disagreements within the organizing committee, some people held positions but never delivered. As a result, the idea was brought forward to expand the committee from 6 to 95 organisations, to have a broader, more diverse base of organisations from which expertise we could draw. As a result, some organisations withdrew from the leadership but continued to support the process, while the Consortium of Migrants and Refugees in South Africa (CORMSA) withdrew completely.
Q: How did the city react?
AM: They said CORMSA should come back in the process. We tried so hard to bring CORMSA back but it did not want to come back after several failed attempts, we thought the process cannot be hold hostage of CoRMSA’s decision and so we carried on working. Still we thought we were working together with the city until November 10, when they asked us to postpone the forum. We replied that this is impossible – around 1000 people from outside South Africa had already registered, booked their flight and accommodation at their own expenses etc. Although we had about 60 meetings with the City in the last 7 months alone, they always seemed reluctant to support or endorse us or assess the level of readiness of the LOC. And when the City withdrew its support with logistics, we first did not know what to do, everything was on hold – transport, program planning, mobilization as we had to find alternatives should have to continue with the Forum.
Q: How do you explain the behaviour of the city administration?
AM: My personal analysis is that their call for a postponement was their strategy to justify their lack of commitment to the WSFM process and a way to get rid of us as this is not their priority. It was somehow sudden that the city did not consult to know the level of readiness and speak with the LOC before coming to their final conclusions. Even after two years of organizing work. One example: The told us they would assist us with booking the venue and would do all the communication with the University of Johannesburg to avoid duplication of communication. But now we found out that the city never booked the venue – on December 5, the day the forum will start, the room we planned to have the plenary sessions is used for supplementary exams! So the city has been lying to us for more than one year. My only understanding of this, if to draw it back to current public discourses on xenophobia in South Africa, where the broader community has been perceiving migrants as inferiors to South African. Through this they have failed to accept that migrants contribute positively to the South African economy, growth and development—instead they have been perceiving migrants as people who come to steal jobs, etc. The city’s reaction to postpone the Forum by ignoring all the work so far done by the LOC and claiming it is not inclusive of South African (which is not true) explains the origin of the above perception. It suggests that migrants have been organising the Forum and it will not be successful without South African as they claimed during the discussion. For us as social movement working for equal rights, we cannot entertain such attitudes and behaviours.
Q: How did you react?
AM: Well, as they say: Even if you have a terrible experience, if you react to it well it will be good for your own growth. We managed to secure a new location, Constitution Hill, where all former strong apartheid freedom fighters had been imprisoned. Because of this historical relevance, we had originally planned to include the venue as a site visit. We never thought of it as a potential main venue, but it is actually a very fitting place: It is a venue connected to freedom and the topic of the WSFM is to defend our freedom.
Q: Will the program go on as planned?
AM: Besides the change of the venue, basically yes. There will be an opening ceremony on December 5 with keynote speakers such as Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and a commemoration of the first anniversary of the passing of Nelson Mandela. There will be around 50 workshops around our four thematic pillars, and a connection to Mzansi Pride Week, a big event for the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) community. Many refugees and asylum seekers are victims of gender or gender choice based violence, so this is an important link.
Q: What are your expectations for the WSFM?
AM: First, after all the obstacles: Having the event itself, bringing migrants and social movements together, despite rejections and challenges. Second, starting a new conversation about African dynamics on migration. We want to also learn from the experiences of social movements that have worked in Europe and the America to create a certain level of freedom and engagement with government, how they went about it and what can we learn from them. And third, pushing governments and regional organisations such as the African or European Union for implementation of better migration policies. We met with the EU mission in South Africa and hope that our final resolution can be presented at an upcoming EU – civil society dialogue. The goal is that the outcome of the WSFM should not end up in some bookshelves but that the recommendations will actually put into action and implementation will start. With this we can be happy that we have started to create alternatives and move towards the idea of another world is possible.