South Africa

Civil Society panel at The Gathering: The time for vigilance is… always

By Simon Allison 11 April 2014

On Thursday at The Gathering, four of South Africa’s top civil society figures discussed what exactly civil society should be doing in this country, and who’s trying to stop them. They painted a dispiriting picture, but there’s one thing everyone agreed on: we’re not turning into a dictatorship anytime soon. Whew. By SIMON ALLISON.

“We are not exceptional,” warned writer and long-time civil society activist Sisonke Msimang as she opened the social justice session at the Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Election Edition on Thursday. Msimang is worried that South Africans put themselves on a pedestal; that we are so enamoured with the ‘miracle’ of twenty years ago that we have become powerless to deal with the messy, gritty reality of everyday politics. “The danger of exceptionalism is that when a nation becomes exceptional, it becomes star-struck by its own leaders and captured by its exceptionalness…the nation may be fooled into waiting for the next exceptional event to save us.”

Between Nkandla, Marikana, scores of service delivery protests and unprecedented levels of police violence, South Africa is a distinctly un-exceptional place at the moment. But not everyone is fooled: around the country, thousands of civil society organisations – ranging from the smallest grass-roots organisations to the big development behemoths – are waging their own, often unnoticed, battles to protect the rights of South Africans and hold the government to account.

Representing them on stage were Vuyiseka Dubula, former executive director of the Treatment Action Campaign and now with Sonke Gender Justice; Fatima Hassan, executive director of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa; and David Lewis, head and founder of Corruption Watch.

They started with a tough one from moderator Msimang. What, exactly, is the role of civil society? Is it to safeguard democracy or provide services, or both?

“I don’t think civil society should be delivering services,” said Dubula, explaining that it could let governments off the hook. It’s a handy excuse, she said, allowing governments to claim they were delivering services simply by allowing others to do so. Instead, civil society should be about empowering citizens. “Our role is to ensure that citizens on the ground are mobilised to hold government to account,” she concluded.

Lewis and Hassan agreed. “I think civil society’s principle role is to ensure that the state delivers on its mandate to provide a basic goods and services,” said Lewis. “[Civil society doesn’t] deliver goods and services; they oblige the state to produce on its mandate, its promises, and to that extent deliver democracy.”

Hassan pointed out that it’s not just the government that should be held accountable. Business too has a role to play: “I think we need to have a serious discussion in this country about redistribution of wealth which also includes a role for the private sector in providing services,” she said.

The discussion really hit its stride on the subject of threats to civil society, and whether it will still be as strong and vibrant in twenty years’ time. First, the good news: none of the panelists think South Africa is in any danger of turning into some “central Asian-type dictatorship”, as Lewis put it.

“I agree that we’re not going to have a dictatorship,” said Hassan, although her rationale wasn’t particularly comforting. “Not because of some grand ideal commitment to the principles of our constitution, but because there are now too many people waiting in line to benefit from being number one.”

Hassan, whose organisation funds more than 180 other civil society organisations in South Africa, is very concerned that there is a concerted campaign underway to undermine the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. “What we are hearing from organisations on the ground and communities is that there is a serious reversal already happening on our constitutional and democratic gains…what they are saying to us is that they are not paranoid…that there is a serious attempt to reverse gains, not just from within government but through collusion with private capital.”

Hassan points to the three ongoing commissions of inquiry – into Marikana, into the arms deal, and into police inefficiency in Khayelitsha – as representative of this trend. “Evidence being presented at the three commissions of inquiry shows evidence of not just corruption but severe disdain for constitutional principles. It’s the state security cluster, with the state police, which is where the evidence is emerging in all three of those commissions. The only credible check on the exercise of public and private power in the next 20 year is civil society. If you are an activist, it’s time to mobilise.” (But as you mobilise, best be careful: Hassan also warned that civil society activists across the country are under surveillance by state security forces).

Dubula concurred, adding a concern of her own: that the government is attempting to “divide and rule” when it comes to civil society by turning organisations against themselves. Look no further than the current infighting in Cosatu, she said, pointing out that while Cosatu is in such disarray it is incapable of adequately protecting workers’ rights – which is, of course, the point of its existence.

Lewis is a little more upbeat for the future of civil society. He doesn’t see any major threats on the horizon, but warned that this doesn’t mean anyone can relax. “After 1994 civil society, like government, went to sleep, with marked exceptions like the TAC…we forgot that your government is as good as you deserve, and we gave government untrammelled power for ten, 15 years, and to expect they are going to hand that over without a fight is ludicrous.”

Fortunately, civil society has woken up. “Now there is a robust fight on,” said Lewis. “It’s not always adversarial. There are really constructive relationships with the state. They’ve responded quite well to the work we are doing…But I think civil society needs to defend itself in good times, let alone in bad times, because if you don’t defend yourself in good times the bad times will surely come.” DM

Photo: Sisonke Msimang, Vuyiseka Dubula, Fatima Hassan & David Lewis at The Gathering. (Greg Nicolson)

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