Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 10 January 2013

2013: the Year of the Citizen?

The ANC has declared the next ten years to be the Decade of the Cadre. It plans to develop members of the highest calibre. The DA is recruiting members at universities and in the townships. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if broader society could declare 2013 to be the Year of the Committed Citizen and stop depending on organised political parties to do all the heavy lifting for the rest of us?

In economics there are two opposing theories (there are always two opposing theories) about the value of public spending. The ‘crowding out’ effect occurs when an increase in government spending leads to a decrease (crowding out) of private sector spending and investment. There’s an opposing theory of public sector spending leading to a crowding in of private investment. 

Those that believe that public spending crowds out private spending will by and large see government’s involvement in the market as a substitute for private enterprise, and those supporting the crowding in theory will see government spending as complementary to the private sector. The rationale for the South African government’s big infrastructure drive is that an investment in infrastructure will lower the costs of doing business and will crowd in the private sector. 

These two terms are a bit clumsy and the arguments supporting the underlying theories are a bit technical, but that’s economic theory for you. In a distilled, folksy sense those that believe in the crowding out effect see government’s involvement in the market as unwanted interference, while those on the other side of the ideological fence see government investment as desirable, even necessary.

The formal theory behind these effects only considers the case of government spending, but I’d like to generalise it to all government activities, including the creation of policy and the administration of most aspects of civil life. I know, the generalisation is a bit crude and may even be specious, but that’s economists for you. To paraphrase: does the work of government complement the efforts of civil society and the general public, or do the actions of the two groups compete for space? Furthermore, if government and civil society are in competition, which group should yield and cede its space to the other?

The evidence of recent years suggests that, in many cases, government does not view civil society groups as its partners, but as its competitors, or at worst its antagonists. The Department of Basic Education has a confrontational relationship with Equal Education, Section27 and the like. Most members of the tripartite alliance see the business sector as an opponent to be bested rather than a partner with whom cooperation and partnership are desirable.

To some members of the ruling party, a stronger civil society has even been seen as a threat that cannot be tolerated. It may be that the ANC is still too captive to its history and its obsession with creating a party-centric hegemony that reaches into every aspect of society. The DA is also far from blameless. It does have a healthier relationship with the business community but it has also exhibited intolerance of criticism from civil society. 

The hollowing-out of what can be termed the formal civil society sector and its reduced contribution to civic life didn’t happen overnight. Some of the decline in the activities of long-standing NGOs and charities over the last decade has been blamed on reduced funding from (and maladministration by) the National Lotteries Board and the National Development Agency. Those dependent on grant money from these government agencies have suffered and their activities have been curtailed.

But even the framing and the description of the civil society sector reveals a more fundamental problem with how many South Africans (particularly those of an older generation) perceive their role in society. Historically, South Africans have developed a culture of non-participation and deference to authority. The Nats pushed an agenda of support and loyalty to the state, and the ruling alliance partners have continued in this tradition. 

The DA has also passed laws (or suggested laws) in the Western Cape related to alcohol consumption, HIV transmission and private motorists that have a common thread of paternalism and reduced moral agency. 

It’s true that pulling over drivers suspected of fatigue is not in the same league as the Protection of State Information Bill. It’s true that, at least some of the time, politicians are motivated to improve society. The DA is also guilty at times of not treating its constituents like adults. It is the benign hand of power, but it is still the business end of an uneven relationship. 

It’s also very easy to blame the elite and the powerful for our messes but we, the citizens who are capable of influencing our own futures, must shoulder responsibility too. To say that corrupt politicians, poverty and inequality were, are and always will be with us may be true, but so have revolutions. The more control and power we cede to others out of a desire for comfort or a fear of freedom, the less we have for ourselves in times of crisis. 

Maybe as South Africans we haven’t been used to freedom for a while, or maybe we’re like everybody else, choosing the path of least resistance and hoping for the best. Maybe we haven’t realised that the business of keeping our elected bastard officials honest is an ongoing business and that the governing of our lives cannot just be left to The Government. If we do that then we fall into the trap of mistaking our elected officials for the thing they represent. 

Section 19(1) of our Constitution says that “[e]very citizen is free to make political choices, which includes the right to form a political party; to participate in the activities of, or recruit members for, a political party; and to campaign for a political party or cause.” Those inclusions were not meant to be limiting factors to how private citizens and civil society decide to involve themselves in the political life of the country.

Last year, our response to undelivered textbooks and deaths in state hospitals was to criticise, to hope and to despair for the most part, but very rarely to take action, to become involved and to fix. That’s probably true about people everywhere, although our sense of powerlessness seems more pronounced than most. More often than not we act like we’ve been well and truly crowded out of the decision-making space. 

Under Apartheid, many civil society groups were united in their efforts to dismantle the regime. Post-1994 it seems that the ANC doesn’t quite know what to do with civil society and is unsure of its function. In turn, most of us frame our involvement in (or detachment from) political life in terms of formal political parties. It’s rarer for us to consider how our individual action is connected to political life. 

The good news is that a younger generation of South Africans neither knows the fear of living under the Nats nor feels the burden of unquestioning loyalty to the ANC that characterises their older counterparts. Hopefully it means that their involvement in civil society isn’t defined in terms of their support of or opposition to a political party. 

The backbone of Equal Education, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, the Treatment Action Campaign and many other outfits is made up of South Africans younger than 40. This new wave of NGOs and civil society organisations is non-partisan, not beholden to any political interests and increasingly strident in the face of non-delivery and government opposition. 

It is difficult to throw off the warm asbestos blanket of institutionalised politics and to take responsibility for the running of one’s life. Most people never transcend their fears and narrow self-interest, which is why politicians are always close by to think and act for us. It is a hard road, but it’s still easier than the easy road, as the cliché goes. Rather than hope for the rejuvenation or ascent of this party or that, it would be better for us to become involved in our own political lives. DM



Zondo Commission will be long and thorough – will it outlast President Ramaphosa?

By Ferial Haffajee

"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas