Opinionista Roy Bhoola 24 October 2017

Civil society is playing politics

Civil society must move from advocating for change to becoming the implementers of that change.

Civil society is both a decorative political catchword, undeniably with a positive connotation, and a technical concept, arguing that the political sphere has to incorporate the interests and roles of societal actors.

The idea of civil society has become ubiquitous in development discourse and policy-making circles after the largest mass Civil Society Organisations (CSO) in Africa, in the form of the UDF, ANC and PAC, defeated an unjust and illegitimate government. As such, civil society was believed to have the powers of transforming the state, thwarting authoritarianism and achieving democracy.

This notion, dominant in the 1970-80s, equated it with the wide-scale dissident opposed to an undemocratic state. Therefore, the current shape of civil society in South Africa should be located within the legacy of the apartheid regime, and civil strife preceding the first democratic election in 1994.

However, in the last two decades these roles have shifted as the actors and purpose of civil society has changed. A core focus of civil society organisations in South Africa today seems to be centred around political accountability. This accountability seems directed at one individual – the President.

While accountability is key within any democratic dispensation, this cannot be the only role of civil society organisations. In 2014, after I left the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, myself and a team of researchers spent an extensive period researching the needs of communities, specifically in rural KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Research showed that while these communities still have a prodigious loyalty to the ANC, they no longer feel their voices are heard within the national discourse of both the ruling party and the government.

One elderly woman, who resides on the border between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, admits that she feels completely forgotten by her local leaders (by this she meant her councillor and mayor). From her explanation, we understood that she made a distinction between the ANC as the governing party, and the ANC as represented by her local councillor.

Through our research, we realised this is a common manifestation in rural communities. While people still align to the ANC, they feel that on a local level it no longer resonates with them as a service delivery and advocacy agent. This realisation was critical in reframing our thinking. The ANC, once the advocate of the people, no longer represents that to rural communities. Despite still having a monopoly on the rural vote, it’s the attitudes of these votes to the ANC in local government, which could de-monopolise this base. This was evident in our research.

This of course, is the natural transition that any civil society organisation makes when they enter the political space. They must move from advocating for change, to becoming the implementers of that change. But this raises another question. Are they really implementing these changes which they have historically advocated for?

Either way, what we realised is that the people want an advocating voice, which speaks truth to power while simultaneously delivering on what people need. This is fundamentally different from the role of the opposition, who raise issues to score political points and garner votes. This advocacy needs to supersede politicking. Instead it should be about the issues.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in the number of civil society organisation formed. Some have been effective in advocacy for socio-economic transformation. Others have peddled their advocacy to match donor requirements. Nevertheless, what is certain, is that the CSO space is being redefined consistently to speak to the needs of the those who feel they have no voice, especially in their local communities and municipalities.

Civil society is becoming essential for the preservation of democracy. No one sector can solve our country’s socio-economic challenges alone. These roles are increasingly carried out through collaborative frameworks with various stakeholders, led by civil society organisations, slowly starting to de-monopolise the role of the state in providing solutions to key challenges. This unique concept of civil society, as the space where we act for the common good, is growing and could in the future fundamentally change the landscape of delivering “change” that is not dependent on the state. DM

Roy Bhoola is a former Member of Parliament in South Africa. He served as an MP for 10 years from 2004 to 2014. In 2014, after leaving the National Assembly, he co-founded a civil society organisation, which aims to give voice to the concerns of those disillusioned by the promise of democracy. Bhoola is currently the Chairperson of the Allied Movement for Change, and Ward Councillor in Umzinto, KwaZulu-Natal


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