To infinity and beyond
24 September 2017 05:27 (South Africa)
Opinionista Stuart Wilson

When attacking NGOs, the government is rendering the poor invisible

  • Stuart Wilson
    stuart-wilson-new.jpg
    Stuart Wilson

    Stuart Wilson is the Executve Director at Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) - a public interest law centre based in Johannesburg - and a practicing advocate.

The Sunday Times reported that the government’s security cluster has launched an “informal probe” into five NGOs, including the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC). In explaining the probe an “ANC source” apparently complained that “They [legal NGOs] use legal means to frustrate the policies of the government. The government can’t do anything and will spend the whole time in and out of court in order to defend its policies”. The source continued, “In the meantime service delivery suffers and people organise protests.”

Those of us familiar with the realities of public interest legal NGOs might find the announcement a touch ironic. Anyone who knows about the public interest sector can tell you that we are, to say the least, a gregarious lot. If you want to know what we think, what we do, how we work, where we get our money from, and what our aims are, espionage and surveillance are entirely unnecessary. We will tell you. Straight up. Often without you asking.

I have no idea whether the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) is one of the five NGOs targeted for probing (or whether the list even exists). But, if it is, our website is a good place to start. There, the intelligence and security cluster can read all about what we do. And, if more efficient service delivery is really the issue, perhaps the cluster’s officials could go further, and arrange things so that a few of our clients no longer need our service.

For example, they could find housing for the residents of the Winnie Mandela informal settlement. The residents were deprived of their state subsidised housing because – whether through negligence or fraud – other people were given possession of houses that the state’s database say belong to them. At least three of the residents now receive municipal accounts for a house they cannot live in, and they will not get another house because – according to the government’s database – they already have one.

Or perhaps they could help save valuable court time, and government resources, by simply agreeing to upgrade the Slovo Park Informal settlement, in Johannesburg, the residents of which, after 20 years of being promised that the ground on a housing project is just about to be broken, have turned to the courts to compel some sort of action on the state’s many promises to them.

Better still, perhaps they could agree to drop the charges against Alfred Moyo, an informal settlement resident in Johannesburg who is being prosecuted for criticising a local police commander, who says that Moyo’s mention of the Marikana massacre intimidated her. Moyo now faces up to 10 years in prison in terms of the Intimidation Act – an Apartheid-era law which the post-Apartheid state appears to have found too useful to repeal.

But if all of that is too much, perhaps the men and women from the security cluster could just make sure that the state stops evicting people who live in shacks, as has happened to the residents of the Cato Crest Community in Durban. They were evicted once because, like the Winnie Mandela residents, they were excluded from a state-subsidised housing project, and another six times when they tried to settle on open land outside the project.

Anyone who works in a human rights NGO will tell you stories like these. Seri can tell you many more from its current active caseload.

People come to Seri, and Seri launches litigation on their behalf, because everything else has failed. People go to their ward councillors. They are ignored. They petition the provincial and national government. Nothing happens. They take to the streets. They are shot with plastic bullets and teargas, and sometimes worse. Dissenting community leaders are persistently targeted for bogus arrest. The residents of Winnie Mandela engaged with the Ekurhuleni Municipality, the provincial housing minister, the national housing minister, the Public Protector and the Hawks before they came to Seri. They also protested and were detained for doing so. They were not seen. Their voices were not heard.

So, finally, the residents of Winnie Mandela settlement, and others, have decided to exercise their constitutional rights to hold the government to account in court. Still, before they do so, Seri, and other legal NGOs, will always try once again to petition the authorities for redress, to engage with the government on behalf of our clients.

Surely, after all this, the state should not be surprised that it is taken to court. And yet, as the security cluster’s apparent decision suggests, the state will still not see the grievances that stand behind lawsuits against it. It prefers instead to say that poor people themselves are not actually litigating at all. It seems, from the quote attributed to the “ANC source”, that the state thinks that it’s the NGOs – not their clients – driving things.

That is profoundly unfortunate, and is the last stage in an elaborate strategy of trying to render the poor, and their grievances, invisible.

It is also part of a growing intolerance of dissent, or even of loyal opposition. There are those within the state who cannot see that loyalty to the Constitution and loyalty to the government are not the same thing. You can fight for your rights against the government while still accepting that it is legitimate. There are even those of us who believe in the Freedom Charter, and the political tradition that it gave birth to, but who disagree with the particular policies, positions, or conduct of the government in particular circumstances, like the circumstances of Alfred Moyo and the residents of Winnie Mandela, Cato Crest and Slovo Park.

The real threat to state security – and democracy – is to see poor people who use the Constitution to assert their rights as somehow illegitimate, as mere puppets of NGOs and the people who fund them (a growing number of whom are South African). If the state could somehow escape this caricature, if it could see the poor, and the grievances that animate them to go to court, the state would, ironically, get sued less often. And maybe there would be nothing more for Seri to do. DM

Stuart Wilson is the executive director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri)

  • Stuart Wilson
    stuart-wilson-new.jpg
    Stuart Wilson

    Stuart Wilson is the Executve Director at Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) - a public interest law centre based in Johannesburg - and a practicing advocate.

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