Thoughts on the OpenForum

It started on a sexual note at the auditorium of the International Convention Centre Cape Town. Kim Kardashian and her sisters in the black, stylish, super sexy bikinis on display via the big screen to a stunned audience got the energy and adrenaline of the delegates jumpstarted on what this particular conference was all about ; no words minced, no holds barred, just plain unadulterated Money, Power and of course Sex – the talk if not the act.

Richard Lee's picture

Author

Strategic communications for WWF

June 12th, 2012

It started on a sexual note at the auditorium of the International Convention Centre Cape Town. Kim Kardashian and her sisters in the black, stylish, super sexy bikinis on display via the big screen to a stunned audience got the energy and adrenaline of the delegates jumpstarted on what this particular conference was all about ; no words minced, no holds barred, just plain unadulterated Money, Power and of course Sex – the talk if not the act.

It was all that and more. Whatever attention Sisonke Msimang sought to attract with her Kardashian slide, what attracted me most about Sisonke and her team’s effort at organising Open Forum 2012 was in the organisation of the conference itself. It was spotless!

It was true to type though because my first point of contact with Open Forum 2012 was Kunda Chinku from the Open Society office in Washington. If a word would ever transform itself to human flesh, the word “effective” would transform to Kunda Chinku. She did everything to make sure myself and my friends from Nigeria got all we needed to be in Cape Town and was very professional all through. If every citizen did their work the way Kunda does hers, the world would never complain about problems, because people like Kunda “take the message to Garcia.”

This time around though, Open Forum 2012 – Money, Power, Sex – was about looking at the narratives around these issues and arriving at solutions in the context of Africa.

For Africa, the questions about her development hovered around the roles of China and the West and the age old questions of aid and trade or better put aid or trade. “China is in Africa for China” is one of the most profound yet simple sentences that remain in my mind from the conference. I am glad someone made this clear enough. China cannot and should not be in Africa for Africa’s sake, if Africa cannot take care of itself, it should not expect China or her age-long aid supplier, the West to care about its problems.

“Self-interest is normal, so don’t feel cheated when people protect themselves” is another crystalized submission from discussions around Money, Africa and the rest of the world. Africa according to most of the speakers on the first day, must look within itself to look useful to the world by engaging beyond quests and opportunities for free money – aid – when of a truth trading its resources, especially secondary products, could make the continent a lot more prosperous than looking to position itself as dark, poor and helpless.

That old picture of Africa long painted by the Economist has since given way to ‘Africa rising’ but this must go beyond a relatively laudable economic growth to economic development, something which has to do with the positive reflection of growth on the populace. Essentially, it is not enough to have a growing economy and as a baggage have a growing population of poor people to contend with.

That anomaly is the question most African governments and societies must sort out to eventually answer the question of justice and equal distribution of wealth amongst the people of the continent.

The second day was about Power - as if money and power were different things right? It showed in the constant crossing of the thin line between money and power by the delegates. Discussions on Power at various times crashed not just on the previous day’s talk on Power but easily ran into the next day’s focus i.e. Sex.

A delegate at this conference would say Money, Power and Sex were synonyms based on the narratives and views and the ease with which discussions on the trio sounded like one discussion on one topic. They will be right because this was all about empowerment. This must have explained the reason why the session on the Arab Uprising kept moving from “Tahrir Square, to “bedrooms” and inevitably “vaginas’ and “erect penis” as all of these words helped to put the uprising beyond just a quest for political power to an individual’s quest for self-definition and rights.

My cheeky self was very much expecting to hear President Joaquim Chissano answer the question of “What could you have done differently given the chance to return to office?” but without disappointing my expectations, the former president of Mozambique pumped hard and fast, slowed down a bit as if he’d finally deliver on the question but alas he never came.

As if I was not listening and waiting for his answer myself, the head of my delegation Adaora Ikenze (OSIWA) nailed my thoughts when she said “has he answered the question?” and I quickly parried her question with my own question, “do politicians have answers?” we both laughed but that was not in any way close to the laughter that gripped the auditorium on the last day. This was the day of Sex!

No, we did not have sex openly even though one of the panelists at this session accused all of us inside the hall of having had sex the previous night. The tangible sense of affirmation suggested she was almost right, it could not have been all, may be most. At this time, many of the delegates had departed Cape Town. Whether this had a lot to do with Femi Kuti’s show the previous night, looking like we had all reached a crescendo or whether most would rather just avoid the central issue around the talk on sex – LGBTI rights – needless to say the last day was some sort of anti-climax.

One thing was clear from this session though, save for South Africa, LGBTI rights remain central human rights issues around the continent. My co-travellers from Nigeria were unusually quiet at this session but I refused to believe what my heart was telling my head to stop thinking about – that they were conscious of the 14 year jail term associated with homosexuality in Nigeria.

OpenForum 2012 did not particularly end on a sexual note though. We saw a movie on the 2008 Ghanaian elections that played out like some sort of thriller and finally settled for another movie that officially closed OpenForum 2012 – Money, Power, Sex with a question whose answer may never be found – Robert Mugabe: What happened?

On a personal note, it was my first opportunity to relate with members of the Open Society from outside my region and what South Africa put together in terms of organisation was only matched by the fun and excitement that poking one another generated. Who would not want to poke many people if that were not a crime? In this case though, poking had nothing to do with what your human mind most likely thinks it is – but to do with a new gadget that will soon make business cards redundant.

Finally, the clubbing at Café Caprice, Camps Bay Cape Town that never was, the effort at chatting up a normal looking girl at Cubana Club that ended up becoming “how much?’ and all the sight-seeing along with my yet unraveled take-aways from Open Forum 2012 has left me with many questions but I will end with one: when next are we gonna do this?

Contacts

  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099