It is activists, clustered loosely under the rather meaningless term ‘civil society’, that provide intelligent, informed comment, counter-comment and critique of the actions of both government and the private sector. It's time for South Africans to help them. By MARK HEYWOOD.
A few months ago on the evening drive home I overheard an interview on Radio 702 between Bruce Whitfield and William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa. Bird was warning about the threat posed by the SABC selling its archive to Multichoice/DSTV, arguing convincingly that it amounted to the privatisation of a large part of the cinematic record of our history. (The fact that the SABC is hardly a trusty guardian is another matter).
As I listened, it struck me that in these frot days hardly an hour goes by on the radio or other media platforms when activists from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) do not provide a counter to some official narrative.
It is activists, clustered loosely under the rather meaningless term ‘civil society’, that provide intelligent, informed comment, counter-comment and critique of the actions of both government and the private sector.
Every day you will hear an array of activists wielding facts, figures and argument to ‘speak truth to power’. Equal Education hammers away to remind us that quality basic education is a right (www.equaleducation.org.za); R2K keeps us alive to secrecy and the spy-state; SECTION27 speaks out on rights to health or more usually the denial of rights. Then there’s the Open Democracy Advice Centre, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, the Treatment Action Campaign and many, many more.
In this age of obfuscation, schlock, spin and generalised political stupidity, these voices help keep reality alive.
Activists are the people who can say the things that those who toe the party or corporate line cannot.
Organisations that speak out for social justice have become indispensable to our Constitutional schema. They are the participatory part of our democracy, the active part of our citizenry. They are a pulsing artery in our body fabric – an artery many politicians, business leaders and some in our media would happily sever.
However, the value of these organisations is far greater than the cacophony of their voices on media waves… On a daily basis activists keep many people’s hope alive. Much more happens off-screen than on. They engage in a myriad of unreported actions and interactions. As I have written before, in our rapacious society NGOs are the last place where poverty stricken people can get quality care, advice, a listening ear and access to legal services.
Why is it then that this value is so rarely appreciated, this public function so little understood? Public intellectuals talk about civil society as if it were on the margins rather than the centre of the battle for South Africa.” More worryingly, why is it that so many activist organisations are struggling for financial survival?
The reason, I believe, is deep in the DNA of the so-called ‘Non-Governmental Organisation’. It lies in the way society has evolved to think about and classify this form of work.
Who contributes real value?
The Companies Act requires that NGOs be registered as ‘not-for-profit companies’. There seems something second class in the very title imposed on us: A bit like ‘non-whites’ of old, we are ‘non-companies’ of new – defined by what we are not.
Being a non-something-else obscures the fact that NGOs create positive value. But in a period of history where private profit rules and bling is king, this type of value is not recognized or recorded.
Instead, NGOs exist in a different moral and political universe than for-profit companies. Our intended headline results are to progressively realise constitutional rights – to tip the balance towards equality of people.
NGOs create social value rather than personal wealth. And no individual gets to take it home as profit!
Take the example of SECTION27. Its sole mission is to ensure that all people (and by all I mean all) have access to quality health services and basic education – rights guaranteed to “everyone” by sections 27 and 29 of the Constitution. Its daily fare is to work to narrow inequality, restore dignity. In doing so, the Constitution is our lodestar; applied research, community empowerment, litigation and legal advocacy are our tools.
SECTION27 is a law firm that acts for public interest. Its attorneys and researchers are social justice activists. They are atypical of their breed because they are accessible on the end of a phone or in person to any school, hospital or person in need of advice or action.
In the context of deepening inequality and weakening public accountability, litigation and legal advocacy are important instruments for enforcing rights that our Constitution presciently gave South Africans against the possibility of a future unresponsive government.
That future is now. We need to use them.
Social justice lawyers create a type of value that is very different to that of their colleagues in for-big-profit-private-practice of law.
For one, they don’t bill by the quarter hour.
Second, they accept salaries far below what they could command in the market.
But does this mean they don’t create value? Of course they do. Were their output to be measured at commercial rates SECTION27’s lawyers – and lawyers in fellow organisations like the Legal Resources Centre or Lawyers for Human Rights – provide tens of thousands of hours of free quality legal advice and assistance per day – that’s worth millions per month.
Nonetheless, many of their peers in private practice regard them as attorneys of a lesser kind because they deal in woolly issues like human rights rather than ‘hard law’ issues – the daily multi-million rand disputes between corporate powers.
Surviving the rights recession?
If only it were that easy.
The big problem with creating public value is that it’s not very attractive to private investors. Because we don’t make money, we are unable to either generate or reinvest our own capital in our day-to-day functions. We redistribute value rather than retain or grow it. We serve a public interest that does not presently have a (commercial) value attached to it.
South Africa is awash with old and new money, much of it in the hands of people who consider themselves good citizens. But whilst some support charities and pet projects, there is no tradition of investing in organisations that campaign for accountability, good governance and human rights. Organisations that are political in other words.
And that’s the rub that makes the vast majority of NGOs foreign donor dependent and prey to accusations that they are “spies” “agents” or fronts for the CIA.
Activists must sing for our suppers to the dwindling stock exchange that invests in public good. This motley bourse is made up of developed country governments who take an insignificant fraction of their GDP and give it to foreign aid or development; foreign and (a small number of) local philanthropists; and privately owned companies who, for good or bad reason, must throw a few dimes at ‘corporate social investment’. Generally, the fewer dimes the better.
But in a world that less and less values human rights even this is a shrinking market.
Amnesty International recently described 2014 as “a nadir – an ultimate low point” for human rights. One reason for this is that the global financial crisis has put many a good NGOs out of business. It has silenced voices of the voiceless meaning that the fact that a lot of people are screaming in greater and greater pain is by-the-by.
So, the purpose of this piece is to try to make an argument that we need to start a discussion within our society about the role of civil society, who invests in it and how we keep it vibrant and independent.
Until you recognise and respects forms of value other than making buckets of money the problems faced by the NGO sector will remain.
And if you need persuading of our importance think of a South Africa without NGOs and activism.
Today three million adults and children are alive because of access to anti-retroviral treatment (ARV). Was this because of Thabo Mbeki’s commitment to ensuring the right of everyone to have access to health care services? No, it was not. It came to be because of the battles waged by TAC.
Today society is well are all well aware of the dangers of the ‘Secrecy Bill’. Did our inquisitive Parliament, diligently excercising its constitutionally assigned oversight role of the executive sound the alarm? No it was Right2Know Campaign that brought it to your attention.
Today textbooks flow once more into the vast majority of poor schools in Limpopo. Can we thank Angie Motshega for this? No. The Minister of Basic Education first claimed there was no problem, and is today using your money to pay lawyers to go to the Supreme Court of Appeal to argue that a textbook for every learner is “an impossible standard of perfection”. So, it needed advocacy and litigation by SECTION27 to bring the problem and then keep it alive with a generally forgetful media with attention deficit disorder.
Think what a wilder, more brutal, bitter, emasculated place South Africa would be without an independent and critical civil society. Imagine a South Africa without campaigners for social justice.
Then, if you have the means and the interests of your country at heart, ask yourself what you can do to invest in social justice. DM
Photo: Residents walk through shacks in Khayelitsha in this picture taken July 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings