The value of a thousand narratives: reflections on the Commonwealth People’s Forum 2018

Posted on 30/04/2018
By Ian Mangenga

There I was, pacing the streets of one of the most impressive cities in the world. I was running late for an 8am meeting with a half-filled stomach, and my only concern was making sure I was well prepared.

For what? One of the most important political events on the Commonwealth calendar. More than 350 delegates from Commonwealth nations representing civil society were about to convene at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in central London for the Commonwealth People’s Forum 2018.

Civil society is one of the biggest pillars of democracy. Through civil society those who have been repressed, violated, silenced and erased find a channel where they can tell their side of the story and hold governments to account for their commitments or lack thereof. Civil society is all about creating an enabling space for dissent which encourages multiple voices to be involved in policy-making processes. The governments may have the power, but the people collectively have a voice and policies that can be used to develop innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing development problems. Therefore, it’s very important that as many people as possible can be involved in creating solutions and as the saying goes ‘if you’re not around the table, you’re on the menu’.

A delegate asks a question during a panel on Legislative Reform in the Commonwealth
Photo©vickicouchman

For as far as I can remember I’ve always been an advocate for inclusion. When I’m not fighting for women’s rights to be recognized and a space to be created for them in political and economic processes, I’m challenging a system that has seen many young people being locked out of politics and other decision-making processes. So as per my self-appointed role, I was ready to scan the room and make notes on who had been left behind at this auspicious event.

‘The governments may have the power, but the people collectively have a voice and policies that can be used to develop innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing development problems.’

The opening could not have been more perfect. Ben Okri offered a satiating talk that allowed us to clean the palettes of our minds and hearts in preparation for the forum ahead. I say this because most of the time, especially when you have been to similar settings numerous times you start to feel that they are all the same. We start to look forward to the mistakes and what could have been done better instead of opening up ourselves to the possibility of having life and nation changing conversations.

Acclaimed author and poet Ben Okri opened the forum with a keynote on ending exclusion in the Commonwealth
Photo©vickicouchman

Many of us have struggled with the idea of a Commonwealth. The name suggests a common and shared wealth but this can be misleading considering that many of the citizens within these nations live below the poverty line. So what then is common amongst us? Mr Okri made me realise that what is common is our history and history has an invaluable amount of wealth, because of this we share a common story of how our nations came into being. We share a common language and also share similar future prospects.

‘The Commonwealth People’s Forum represented a dinner where everyone I could think of could be found at the table and for once instead of having the poor and marginalized on the menu, we had issues of corruption, sexism, racism and gender inequality to discuss.’

The Commonwealth People’s Forum was filled with people from all spectrums of life. Those who have attended many forums and those who were attending it for the first time. Like myself. Those who cared about the wellbeing of the elderly to those who were defending LGBTQI rights. Listening in on every session I got to walk in the shoes of the panelists as they shared their stories. This gave me a valuable insight on the challenges of inclusion and injustice others were facing across the Indian and Pacific Ocean.

From left to right: Patrick Younge, Rod Little, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera and Marchu Girma
Photo©vickicouchman

I always say the personal is political. Politics is not a choice. Often we use ourselves as the point of reference for our activism but this narcissistic approach to dissent can be reckless. The Commonwealth People’s Forum made me appreciate the value of a thousand narratives.

I come as one but stood for thousands that are unemployed in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). I speak for women that are violated and marginalised culturally, economically and politically. Making sure that the experiences and voices of all the ten thousand people and more that I represent are acknowledged is important to me. This made me notice another magical thing about the Commonwealth. We are a kaleidoscope of different hues, views, cultures and beliefs that are in conversation with one another. The Commonwealth People’s Forum represented a dinner where everyone I could think of could be found at the table and for once instead of having the poor and marginalised on the menu, we had issues of corruption, sexism, racism and gender inequality to discuss. Together we created solutions that have the power to drive the Commonwealth nations in the direction that the rest of the world should be going in.

Ian Mangenga is a youth activist and member of the South African chapter of the Southern African Alliance for Youth Unemployment

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