Maverick Citizen


Civil society has been a force for change – but can it change the politics of South Africa?

Civil society has been a force for change – but can it change the politics of South Africa?
Seize the Power! Activists speak up on the importance of attending the human rights festival. (Photo: iStock)

Saturday, 10 December is international Human Rights Day. It also marks the signing of the Constitution of South Africa 26 years ago. All well and good. But with children starving in the Eastern Cape and 989 women murdered between July and September 2022, isn’t it time for a serious discussion about the strategies activists use to advance human rights?

Civil society has played a vital role at every stage of South Africa’s democracy. 

Through resistance, litigation, research and demonstration, it has led in giving flesh to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution’s promise of a society based on “democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. Like Atlas, civil society has held up the constitutional sky. 

Prominent examples of successful advocacy include:

  • The response to the HIV/Aids epidemic catalysed by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC);
  • The thwarting of the Secrecy bill by the Right2Know campaign; and
  • Mobilising against State Capture by a range of organisations.

But it has not only been about advocacy. 

Civil society has often filled the gaps where the state is failing in service delivery. No organisation better exemplifies this than the humanitarian work of Gift of Givers who have shown that with will and relatively few resources, delivery is possible. Think of how they have: 

  • Drilled boreholes to provide water to drought-stricken towns in the Eastern Cape;
  • Ensured vital oxygen supplies to hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic; and
  • Rescued people and offered emergency relief during the floods in eThekwini and surrounds in April 2022.

In a country still full of hate and prejudice, civil society has also refused to surrender the human rights of the most marginalised: shack dwellers, African migrants and refugees, the LGBTQI community. This is sometimes at great personal cost. For example, living literally at the nexus of politics and criminality, Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organisation campaigning for the rights of access to housing and land, has had 24 of its leaders murdered in a decade – four in 2022.  

Read in Daily Maverick: “The Abahlali baseMjondolo experience exposes South Africa’s shrinking democratic space

By these means and through these organisations (and many many more) civil society has kept hope alive. Where other new democracies have failed it is not an exaggeration to say that in South Africa activism has prevented the dismembering of democracy. 

New challenges

But the heady days of activism in the 1990s and early 2000s, flush with the possibilities of a new Constitution, are gone. In the past decade the political and economic geography for civil society activism has changed. Today it’s almost unrecognisable. 

How do you shame a shameless government? How do you litigate for rights to healthcare and basic education against a state that claims to have no money to realise core socioeconomic rights? How do you enforce judgments against government departments which have shown themselves incapable of carrying out court orders? 

A significant number of people, including children, are going to bed hungry. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

These questions compel us to ask what the role of civil society is in 2023 and beyond. Surely it can’t just be to keep putting plasters on a bleeding state. 

Whatever the outcome of the ANC’s leadership fracas (in many ways a distraction from the real issues that concern the majority of people in South Africa) the prospects for human rights in the years ahead are not good. The government’s failure to follow constitutional obligations, together with corruption, mean social problems will be magnified. And this will have political ramifications, in particular fuelling populism, public violence and violent extremism. 

Is this a time of reckoning for civil society?

The Cyril Ramaphosa government, for all its faults and failures, has largely kept democratic space open. As social and economic problems intensify a David Mabuza/Zweli Mkhize/Paul Mashatile government, or worse, might adopt an approach to civic space more akin to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India or President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe. 

For all these reasons, recently there has been a move by parts of civil society to begin to actively engage in electoral politics in the run-up to the 2024 elections. This has also been prompted by the amendments to the Electoral Act ordered by the Constitutional Court that aim to make it possible for independent candidates to stand for Parliament. 

Nelson Mandela signs the Constitution, watched by Leon Wessels, Nelson Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa and mayor of Vereeniging Yunus Chamda. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Nicky de Blois).

So far, this has been led by people like Songezo Zibi, the Rivonia Circle and Mmusi Maimane and the Build One South Africa (BOSA) movement. 

Is one part of the solution filling our parliaments with independent and accountable activists?

The signing of South Africa’s Constitution in May 1996 ushered in a new era of constitutional democracy two years after the country’s historic first democratic election and the installation of President Nelson Mandela. In this photograph Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela appear with a signed copy of the Constitution. (Photo: Gallo Images / Business Day / Robert Botha)

What are the other strategies? How does civil society go from endless critique to reconstruction? How does civil society become a political (not party political) power to be reckoned with that is more than the sum of its multitude of parts?

Finally it’s time – in fact it’s over time – for civil society to bring poor people into the conversation. As the saying goes, there should be nothing about us without us. Poor people don’t need endless charity, they need power. Poor people have the ideas and the solutions, they need to be seen, heard and enabled to implement the solutions and take them to scale.

On the eve of Human Rights Day 2022, the theme for which is “Dignity, Freedom and Justice for All”, we suggest that these are the questions and debates that should be front of mind for human rights activists in South Africa and the world over. DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Civil society would achieve a lot more if it learnt more from Gift of the Givers. We have too many rights advocates that expect and demand more free stuff but that don’t take constructive, productive action. It would be great if we could afford a BIG. We can’t and if we go down that road of another R500,000,000,000 handouts the country is doomed. Jobs will change poverty. Any job – even it is cleaning the country and recycling. Pay people per bin, not per child. Why is birth control even such a taboo among civil rights organizations? Look how it changed the outcomes in China.

  • Mark K says:

    Several communities have successfully used the courts to have management of budgets and service provision handed over to them from their failing municipality. The basis for this was that their rights were being compromised by corruption and incompetence. Could this be replicated at a provincial or even national level? Could citizens take over things like policing and education?

    • John Cartwright says:

      Citizens can’t (or shouldn’t) ‘take over’ security or education, but they can, among other things,
      1. form accountable forums/committees for carrying out effective, informed and fair oversight of those and other state responsibilities, and
      2. complement and strengthen such activities through NGOs, CBOs and other specialist organisations that draw on both unique local knowledge and professional non-state knowledge.
      For ‘civil society’ to engage effectively in such activities is an ongoing education for both non-state and state actors. It’s a process which should ideally make clear who is good at doing what, and how to make space for this complementarity to happen. This is work for grownups.

    • Andries Breytenbach says:

      For communities to take over the management of their budgets and service provision is a critical action to affect immediate change and create real opportunity for local job creation. The same model can and should be applied at every level and sphere of government and at all SOE’s. This way civil society will become the backbone of an apolitical civil society bureaucracy that will run all service delivery and control taxpayers’ money.

  • Louis George Reynolds says:

    Excellent piece – thanks Mark. As things are, neither the state nor the market can make things better. They don’t have the inclination, they’re out of touch with reality, and they don’t have a clue.

    It’s up to us, civil society. We need a broad movement to come together around key common values such as social justice, equality, non-violence, and human rights. Also, a love for mother earth and the realisation that we humans are an integral part of the global ecosystem. And you’re spot-on: meaningful community participation by poor people is critical: the energy for real change can only come from below. I have a vague and hopeful sense that this is beginning to germinate.

  • Kate Alexander says:

    Yes, but … But there are things that can be done by community organisations to relieve some of the worst aspects of contemporary South African politics. I have in mind the excellent work done by the Community Organising Working Group and others around vaccine mobilization, which you have written about very positively, or challenges to xenophobia, crime, service delivery failure, GBV, etc. at a local level. I don’t know whether you are including this kind of mobilisation as part of civil society, perhaps so. Whether you do or not, you argument could carry a broader recommendation. Conversing is not enough, rather NGOs, unions, churches and academics should be giving practical support to build community mobilisations.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


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