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Series: Democracy & Sustainability

Letting Citizens Take The Helm

April 16, 2013 | by JAN HOFMEYR

© Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development

Civil society in South Africa is vibrant – yet fragmented, underfunded and often under government auspices. But new initiatives in education and health show a new thinking about effective civic engagement.

The South African government arrived late to the international debate on sustainable governance, and so did its civil society. In 1992, when the world converged on Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit to find new strategies to pursue human security in ways that do not deplete the resources that sustains it, South Africa was in the midst of an extremely fragile political transition.

Two years prior to the country’s first democratic election, leaders on different sides of South Africa’s historical political divides were negotiating the terms of a democratic transition that would give the black majority the most basic of freedoms – the right to vote. Sustainable governance could not have been further from their minds and that of the civil society groups that backed the process.

These negotiations were the culmination of the struggle against apartheid on two fronts. Externally the liberation movements waged an armed struggle from across the country’s borders, and internally progressive anti-apartheid civil society organisations united under the auspices of the umbrella movement, the United Democratic Front (UDF), to resist the oppression of the apartheid regime.

While many organisations, affiliated to the UDF, were service orientated and determined to alleviate the material plight of the impoverished victims of apartheid, its major thrust was rights-based, with the objective to achieve political liberation. When the African National Congress (ANC) was eventually unbanned, the UDF was also dissolved in 1991 to make way for the liberation movement to pursue the political emancipation of the oppressed.

Addressing Underdevelopment Became the Driving Force of the New State

The Sustainable Governance Indictors (SGI) study for South Africa highlights the extent to which apartheid bestowed a structurally imbalanced economy, characterised by high levels of poverty and social inequality, on the new democratic state. As such, the alleviation of these developmental challenges became the central driving force that guided its policies. This emphasis, which coincided with the demobilisation of anti-apartheid civil society and the cooptation of its leadership into government, had profound consequences for the nature of its engagement in post-apartheid South Africa.

Firstly, the absorption of these leaders into democratic government structures contributed to a weakening of management capacity within civil society at a critical time when it had to redefine itself within the new political dispensation.

Secondly, a tacit assumption emerged within certain progressive circles that rights-based advocacy would have to take a backseat now that a liberation movement (the ANC) had come to power. Some within the ANC went as far as labelling the organisation’s critics ‘unpatriotic’ opponents of the national democratic revolution For them the expectation was that civil society’s primary role should become one of partner and service provider in the government’s fight to address apartheid’s legacy of poverty and inequality.

And thirdly, because a legitimate government assumed power, donor money now deposited directly into government coffers and not disbursed directly to recipient organisations, as was the case under apartheid. As a result, the government channelled the bulk of such donor funding towards civil society organisations that fit the profile of what it envisioned civil society’s role to be.

As a result, rights- and governance-orientated organisations, which include environmental rights groups, received proportionately far less in terms of government funding and became increasingly reliant on direct support from Western embassies and international foundations. Not surprisingly, this made them vulnerable to accusations of being conduits for ulterior Western agendas. It also made the ANC wary of the extent to which civil society organisations could be trusted to take a leading role in the social transformation of society.

The Exercise of Freedom of Speech is the Greatest Challenge for Civil Society in South Africa

Given South Africa’s socio-economic context, this emphasis on service delivery and assistance to organisations that partner with government in this regard, cannot be faulted. However, doing so at the expense of citizenship education and advocacy in a country with a relatively short democratic history, will weaken the ability of South Africans to voice their preferences, as opposed to merely being recipients of what government think they need.

While the South African state respects and protects core democratic rights, such as freedom of speech, centuries of autocratic rule has resulted in many either not knowing how to exercise it, or not having access to the means to realise it.

It is difficult to estimate the current size of the country’s civil society sector. The SA Non-Profit Sector Study (the most recent of its kind), which was conducted in 2001, put the figure at around 98.000 organisations, but due to the passing of time can no longer be regarded as reliable. Yet, all indications are that, like in 2001, most are still less formalised and concerning themselves with immediate needs in marginalised communities. Many, such as the Landless People’s Movement and Abahlali baseMjondolo, are organic social movements with limited formal structures and their primary mode of engagement is through protest.

Lobbying, advocacy and research capacity is largely limited to a handful of well-resourced entities with the ability to give an empirical edge to their policy-making interventions. Within the governance sector this would include the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), in the security sector the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and in the environmental sphere, Earthlife Africa. Most of the organisations in the latter category are, however, dependent on foreign (primarily European) funding, which have made them financially vulnerable in recent years.

South African Civil Society is Vibrant, Albeit Fragmented and Underfunded

If anything the divergence between civil society organisations in South Africa have increased, with class having become a distinctive fault line. A recent report, titled Civil Society and the Post-Polokwane South African State, suggested that this is not only the case for the distinction between rights-based and service-orientated organisations, but also for civil- and political rights organisations that are seen to pursue a distinct middle class agenda on issues such as judicial reform, corruption, and environmental rights; and grassroots organisations that focus almost exclusively on socio-economic rights.

While the SGI Study on South Africa is correct to point to the vibrancy of civil society sphere in South Africa, it needs to be added that it also remains highly fragmented. This has implications for the issue of ‘voice’ and the related question of representivity.

Some groups have the capacity to research policy matters and eloquently articulate their findings in cosmopolitan and urban settings. But many organisations lack a sense of rootedness and first-hand insights that allows them to be seen as representatives of those that live with the dominant reality of poverty. Several of those that do operate well as representative entities often lack the financial backing and capacity to articulate their experience and insights in the technocratic language of government.

This scenario is almost inevitable in a country that is as unequal as South Africa, but if its civil society wants to pursue development in a sustainable and inclusive way, it needs to harness its vibrancy to work in concert and not in the decoupled way in which it has operated until now.

European Economic Crisis Has Hit NGOs in South Africa

In recent years the formal, foreign funded NGO sphere has suffered as a result of the impact that the European economic crisis has had on the development support budget of its respective states. Forced to channel such funds where they are most needed, several European countries have opted to divert funding away from middle income countries to those in the lower income categories. As a result, several established organisations are facing an existential threat or had to extend their programmatic offering to other African states that do still fall within the restricted funding mandate.

Given South Africa’s high levels of income inequality, this situation has given rise to new thinking about effective civic engagement. New organisations, strongly rooted in the constituencies that they represent, but also with the necessary research and policy engagement skills, have emerged. They are eager to support government interventions, but have also succeeded to force it through the courts to respond to the needs of those that they represent.

These include entities, such as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which campaigns for the rights of HIV/Aids infected citizens, and Equal Education and Section 27, that agitate for the improvement of the country’s struggling public education system.

South African civil society may still have to experience some pain in the short- to medium term future as it comes to terms with these new realities. Yet, the emergence of such new organisations, shaped by these same realities, does offer hope that civil society can play a role in pursuit of creating a more inclusive sense of governance that involves citizens more closely in determining their destiny.

Jan Hofmeyr is one of the authors of the South Africa country report of the SGI BRICS study. He heads the Policy and Analysis Unit of the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He writes this article in his personal capacity.

This article is part of the series "Democracy & Sustainability", a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy: Two authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.

In part 2 of our series, Angelina Davydova and Jan Hofmeyr look at sustainability and civil society engagement in the BRICS countries: Is it a benefit for democracy?

Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement in Russia: A Gain for Democracy? Please find Angelina Davydova's article here.

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