Well, it seemed a good idea at the time
20 November 2017 15:38 (South Africa)
Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow

Is South Africa heading towards a new civil society?

  • Shelagh Gastrow
    Shelagh-Gastrow.jpg
    Shelagh Gastrow

    Shelagh Gastrow is a director of GastrowBloch Philanthropies, a philanthropy advisory service that helps individuals and families integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work in philanthropy has gained public recognition locally and internationally.  

The revolts of the Arab Spring were examples of mass action that did not require formal organisation, yet the eventual outcomes were mostly disastrous for democracy and often for the very lives of those who participated. However, they represented the “mood of the nation” and people felt emotionally driven to action and resistance regardless of the consequences.

Over the last few years we have seen the growth of social movements in South Africa and this is starting to become the essence of civil society in our country. While the myriad organisations established by individuals and communities that are registered with the Department of Social Development play a significant role in citizen action and the delivery of services, major fundamental social change is now essentially being driven by large numbers of citizens coming together without concern for the formalities. The revolts of the Arab Spring were examples of mass action that did not require formal organisation, yet the eventual outcomes were mostly disastrous for democracy and often for the very lives of those who participated. However, they represented the “mood of the nation” and people felt emotionally driven to action and resistance regardless of the consequences. We are seeing this in South Africa, not only through the current student movement, but also in communities where movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, made up of shack dwellers and who have been fighting for 10 years for the right for people to live in the city.

Formal civil society organisations operate within a specific legal framework – often defined by the state in terms of registration, tax exemption and legal compliance. However, social movements are more organic and operate in a different mode. They don’t sit down to develop visions and missions, formally appoint professional chief executive officers with job descriptions and put business systems in place. Nor do they undertake formal monitoring and evaluation with independent consultants to measure their impact. They are not concerned with returns on investment or accountability to donors. Yet, social movements definitely have an impact within their communities, nationally and often on government policy.

At the same time, we need to be wary of the romance of the streets as social movements with no clear leadership or agreed plan on how to eventually negotiate or actually deliver change are doomed, either by hard action against them by those in power or by burning themselves out through exhaustion. The relationship between a social movement and the state is an essentially antagonistic, but political one as the essence of the social movement is resistance to the state or other entities or elites viewed as blocking its objectives. While social movements oppose the state, they are dependent on it to take action. The alternative is the eventual overthrow of existing authority.

We also should not be naïve about social movements – because they are largely populist, they can trigger behaviour that can be destructive, such as xenophobia. People move in large groups and it is up to the leadership to ensure that the values they profess to uphold remain intact. In the last century, one of the biggest social movements that ruined Europe was the National Socialist movement which eventually formalised into a political party. However, the methodology used, especially on the streets, should be a warning on how quickly things can change to the detriment of all citizens.

What the student protests have shown us is that citizens, especially those who are young and have yet little sense of their own mortality, will take to the streets. We should be thankful that they do as they become the engine rooms for change. In many ways, these student protests are effectively regenerating civil society. They are dealing with systemic issues in a fundamental way. What eventually happens to this energy? The social movement can dissipate and it can also can evolve into a formalised entity. However, the fundamental nature of the movement changes as the organisation faces compliance issues. The benefit of formalisation is clearer strategy, structural options to problem solving and often delivery mechanisms. Ultimately, social movements will need financial resources and this is the crux of the matter as money means accountability to an external entity. This would signal the eventual switch to a more formalised structure.

The relationships between social movements and formalised civil society organisations can be conflictual, but there could be significant synergy to ensure that all citizens have a role to play in whatever mode is more comfortable for them. There is no doubt that social movements have benefitted in the past from the skills many individuals have developed in the employ of civil society organisations, especially in the field of communications and advocacy, providing mechanisms and know-how for newsletters, press releases and newspaper articles. Today we are seeing new articulate leaders who are willing to take on the issues of corruption and mismanagement as well as their own cause of university transformation and fees. Existing formal civil society organisations need to be clear that for now they can only play a supportive role, and only when invited. It has been a pleasure to see new leaders, rather than the usual suspects who regularly address their bused-in crowds outside of Parliament. Let’s keep it that way. DM

  • Shelagh Gastrow
    Shelagh-Gastrow.jpg
    Shelagh Gastrow

    Shelagh Gastrow is a director of GastrowBloch Philanthropies, a philanthropy advisory service that helps individuals and families integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work in philanthropy has gained public recognition locally and internationally.  

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