Marius Oosthuizen, in SA civil society: The road less travelled, makes some good points about both the shortcomings and potential of civil society to help extricate ourselves from the morass in South Africa. He is quite correct that one reason for this sector not being as effective in the current period, compared to the apartheid era, is an extent of demobilisation resulting from the movement of many activists into government, and the accompanying sentiment that the battle had been won in 1994.
But the analysis is plagued by some serious flaws.
First, he appears to let business off the hook in his characterisation of government being the only culprit in the creation of a dysfunctional politics. The reality is that business will only “demonstrate an enduring commitment to the long-term future of the country” as long as it is good for business, regardless of what the politics are. Business, as a rule, has not been particularly proactive in raising the ethical bar or being effective at self-regulating when it concerns one of its own. There is, therefore, nothing immutable about this observation.
Second, he credits a very limited role for civil society in the struggle against apartheid. While significant, channelling resources and publicly voicing dissent were not the only, and certainly not the pivotal, contribution of civil society here. Its major contribution was to mobilise the mass of democratic forces to challenge the apartheid state at national and local level through direct peaceful and militant action to make the system ungovernable, and its institutions unworkable.
Third, he makes the same error made by political parties and commentators alike. That is, treating civil society in an essentially instrumentalist manner. In this conception, civil society is viewed as the mechanism to serve the political party or state in the achievement of its objectives. The exhortation to mobilise civil society and the NGO sector to support various political manifestos and programmes was amply evident in the recent elections. In effect, civil society is expected to deliver a constituency on a platter for political parties to advance their own programmes. This instrumentalist view disempowers civil society and frustrates its ability to develop alternative systems of power and influence to government institutions.
Fourth, in reviewing the Zuma years, it is almost as if civil society is being excoriated for being ineffective, acting too late, being under-resourced and uncoordinated, with the consequent descent into the erosion of the rule of law and of institutions of governance. Resource constraints are real, but the reliance of civil society on funders poses an array of problems, such a misuse of funds, reliance on paid officials/leaders rather than volunteer activists, to name a few. Furthermore, the resort to apathy and naivete to explain the relative inactivity of civil society is inadequate, over-simplistic and condescending.
Fifth, laying the blame on the complicity of some former anti-apartheid activists is missing the point entirely as regards the systemic nature of the rot in our public (and private) sectors. It overlooks the reality of the ANC and the government being subverted to institutionalised corruption and looting on a grand scale.
It is true that some in civil society misplaced their hopes on a change of leadership in the ANC as a panacea, rather than confronting the beast in its entirety. That does not explain the position of all components of civil society. It is also correct that civil society is not homogenous, and building consensus has not always been easy. These are some of the challenges that it will need to address.
South Africa’s rich history of civil society mobilisation has demonstrated that it can constitute a source of both influence and popular power, in challenging government, ensuring transparency and ethical standards, and holding it to account. Civil society formations need to have those conversations to develop greater coherence and unity of purpose for the road ahead. It is not so much a road less travelled as it is a known path fashioned to the dictates of the present reality. DM