Civil society in South Africa has no power, is poorly co-ordinated and scantly funded. Yet, despite this, it wields considerable influence.
It played a pivotal role in the domestic struggle against apartheid, at times facilitating the flow of resources to those operating undercover in the country and shielding them from the oppressive hand of the apartheid security apparatus. Publicly, it played a key role in providing a platform for contrarian voices, such as those of clergy and worker activists, who sounded out the moral clarity needed to oppose apartheid.
Unfortunately, civil society has also fallen silent at important moments when its role was critically needed.
By the time it became apparent that democratic South Africa had fallen prey to a syndicate of local and international looters during the 1999 Strategic Defence Package, also known as the “Arms Deal”, the anti-apartheid wave of civil society activism had burnt out. Civil society briefly burst out of its slumber during the decade of AIDS denialism between 1999 and 2008, eventually bringing about the medical access so desperately needed by millions, but not before an estimated 300,000 citizens had died.
As South Africa began to be rocked by scandal after scandal during the Zuma charade presidency, civil society found itself under-resourced and unco-ordinated in the face of what was clearly becoming an endemic breakdown of the rule of law and an erosion of the institutions of state.
By the time citizens were marching to Save South Africa and for Zuma to fall, billions of rand had flowed out of the public purse and out of the country, on the back of reckless lending by the state to fund inflated payments to dubious characters. As the Zondo Commission is revealing, South Africa had become cancerous, every limb of the state apparatus infected by a metastasising parasite of greed.
Sadly, some of the very anti-apartheid activists have themselves become complicit, or worse, criminals in suits.
One would think that today millions would be on the streets demanding change. That the white-collar criminals in political party T-shirts would be jailed as quickly as the fallists of the Fees Must Fall protests were. For the damage to the state done by the looters outweighs the scale of the damage done by petrol-bomb wielding fallists by a magnitude of billions. But so far nothing has come of all the revelations of Guptagate and Zondo.
Instead, civil society seems to relish the victory won when Zuma was recalled and appears to have gone back to sleep.
Perhaps the reason for this apparent apathy lies in two basic assumptions about the nature and character of South Africa’s democratic order.
The first is that elected officials are animated by a desire to serve the nation’s interests.
The second is a naive belief that market-based capitalism will serve social ends without the imposition of social demands, other than that embodied in regulation and the law.
It might be that civil society has faith in the spheres of politics and business as custodians of the national future.
This naivety is akin to a villager drinking water from a lake where two rivers converge, in the belief that as long as one of the two rivers is pure, the water will be safe. Unless they realise that both are polluted, and clean water is not to be found in the lake, but upstream at the water’s source, they will continue to suffer the consequences. The national interest can ultimately be best upheld by the nation itself, not by token representatives.
South Africa’s body politic is infected with a self-serving short-sightedness that continues to drain the nation of vitality. It can be remedied. It must be remedied. But imagining that the politicians will have a “come to Jesus moment”, or that business will follow the Biblical “rich young ruler” of Mark Chapter 10, and relinquish an appropriate amount of their material power, is naive.
Abuse of power will end when civil society wields its influence to ensure that the use of power, the very availability of power, depends on the rightful use thereof. Accountability – not piety – will save South Africa.
What this means is that South Africa is facing a double decade, at least, of trench warfare between the cultures of good citizenship on the one hand and of patronage and rent seeking on the other. It means that civil society needs a tactical and strategic reorientation, from a laissez-faire accompaniment of those in power, to a vigilant custodianship whereby monitoring and mentoring ensure an ever-present accountability to the people, by those who enjoy the right to wield power.
In a week when South Africans learned of a recessionary first quarter in the economy, the news cycle and national psyche was awash with ANC factionalism, poorly informed and argued ideological wrangling in the public by office-holders in ministries central to our state. Instead of, as we should be, preoccupied with a unified, pro-poor agenda of national reconstruction. This is an indictment of those in power, but more importantly demonstrates the essential fact – that civil society must fill the leadership vacuum left by the ineptitude of those who through clever politics and pure greed, have hijacked the apparatus of state in which we as citizens have put our trust.
To secure our national future, civil society, the NGOs, churches and faith communities, media and labour movements, the women’s movements and issue-based activists, will have to take the road less travelled. DM
"Those who will not reason are bigots; those who cannot are fools; and those who dare not are slaves." ~ George Gordon Byron