Defend Truth


It’s not only about power politics, good people — civil society reimagined.


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

It is the people that must ultimately defend our Constitution and our democracy through various non-government organisations, civic organisations, non-profit organisations and community-based organisations.

As the year draws to a close I find myself participating in a number of civil society initiatives that concern themselves with so many pertinent issues afflicting our society. This is most encouraging considering that in 1994 we had more than 5,000 civil society organisations involved in some or other critical matter but, as apartheid suffered its last gasps for air, we now only have a piddly sum still in operation.

Suffice to say that because of the maladministration and poor leadership of the ANC these past nine years, the civil society sector has had a healthy kick under their behinds and have begun to organise themselves again. I’m very happy about this, for they are the last line of defence when it comes to our democracy. Yes, I said it, it is the people that must ultimately defend our Constitution and our democracy through various non-government organisations, civic organisations, non-profit organisations and community-based organisations.

Just a few days ago I reminded some people that we will all agree with James Wolfensohn when he says “the issue of poverty, inequality and unemployment is not a statistical issue — it is a human issue”.

I continued and indicated that I will not presume to bore participants with the history of our country and why indeed we have these levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment today. Suffice to state categorically that our colonial and apartheid policies over the past 300-plus years remain a massive contributing factor to our current situation.

Apartheid spatial morphology, in no small measure, actively contributes to the pathetic poverty levels in our country. This we observe across the race, gender and spatial divide. The influx of citizens from the deprived rural areas to the city centres in search of opportunities remains a serious challenge. This phenomenon will weigh considerably on the already overburdened city administrations, placing enormous pressure on the provision of basic services. We know, for example, that the current spatial morphology simply reinforces old apartheid stratums. Working people spend more than half their wages on travelling to and from work.

Having said this, the root causes of poverty and inequality are:

  • The skewed ownership patterns of land and other productive assets;
  • The low levels of competition and integration into regional and global economies;
  • Limited or expensive connectivity;
  • Low skills base; and
  • Climate change will increasingly impose constraints (water).

There is also the controversial matter of, “poverty as a choice”. Here, basically, the thesis goes that government cannot really afford for most in society to be well off or in the middle class, because it would inadvertently put too much pressure on social and basic services, which the government cannot afford.

Inequality, on the other hand, is a comparative equation of the haves and have nots and hence SA is the most unequal society in the world. I also want to put forward that we simply don’t have enough understanding of wealth in SA, no real analysis and data sets around wealth and if we don’t understand it, how can we tackle it?

Political compacting is required around these delicate matters and the question we must ask is, can we have this compacting? Does the general political will exist to solve this challenge and address the structural changes required? Education and skills levels cannot be underestimated as poverty alleviators. The fact of the matter is that there has been a worsening of poverty and inequality over the past 25 years.

In order to escape poverty, inequality and unemployment, we need competent leadership, municipal mismanagement must come to an end, and last but certainly not least, the structure of the economy must change to address the imbalances of the past. Issues of race, class and gender must feature high when looking at such redress.

General poverty reduction strategies have been:

  • Increasing the supply of basic needs — food, food production, healthcare and education, accessing government services, reversing brain drain and controlling overpopulation;
  • Increasing personal income — income grants, economic freedom (dealing with bribery and corruption), land rights (productive land use and being able to access and leverage credit), financial services (microfinance and microcredit).

We also need to constructively engage with the poor and not formulate policies far away from those that are directly affected.

Finally, the unplanned nature of capitalism inevitably overproduces commodities and overuses resources, which lead it to expand its markets into, and drain the resources out of, other less-developed nations. Capitalism is inherently exploitative of labour, as you know.

In Das Kapital, Karl Marx argued that labourers are used to extract more exchange value than the cost of their survival needs of food, shelter, clothing, and similar basic necessities. Labour is therefore treated as one component of the cost of production where lower labour costs translate into higher profits.

In essence, workers must often allow their labour to be exploited or face starvation. This begs the question, what can we expect from the owners of the means of production. What, if anything, will captains of industry do to alleviate our triple challenges in SA?

There is much to be desired regarding the way in which the human race organises itself economically, which is reflected in the way wealth is unequally distributed. This arrangement is unsustainable and requires critical introspection and redesign of the current economic worldview.

And this was just one event. Another was organised through a partnership between the Public Affairs Research Institute and the Kathrada Foundation.

Here we dealt with the exhausting matter of the effects of State Capture and what will South Africa have to look like after this epoch. The keynote speaker at the event, Judge Johann Kriegler, summarised it beautifully.

We collectively failed [this] last decade. The President went rogue (Zuma), The Cabinet went walking, Parliament went to sleep and, the judiciary went to ground.” He warned us, “leaving it all to judges to clean up, will be a mistake. We must have other options open to us. Don’t make judges political”.

Participants spoke of the successes of the Zondo and Nugent commissions and quoted, lyrically, Edward Burke, “for good men to remain silent…”

I, too, raised my concerns about lawfare. In the end, it was agreed that there has to be consequence management. Unfortunately, the majority felt that we must see people in orange overalls soon.

Next was the Strategic Dialogue Group, which concerned itself with the capacity of the state, corruption, the economy and social cohesion. Minister [of Public Service and Administration] Senzo Mchunu indicated that corruption has become some kind of subculture. The high turnover of senior government officials was raised as a problem. Every time a new minister arrives, it means that almost the entire senior management must change. This is not sustainable. Furthermore, on the NHI debate, a participant said, and I agree with him, “if we cannot manage what is in our grasp, attacking the other side (private healthcare) will not help”.

I also participated in the review process of our 25 years of democracy, but I have written about this previously.

In conclusion, without good governance, corruption will prevail and prevent any poverty alleviation programme from achieving success. Civil society organisations are not only here to keep a watchful eye on our government and private corporations and to check whether our Constitution is adhered to, but perhaps more importantly, they have a secondary function, and some in the sector disagree with this, they also must assist government with providing basic and necessary services to our people.

What do I mean by this? Well, I agree with some civil society activists that they are not here to do the government’s work, but surely a helping hand goes a long way. Partnerships with government and specific government departments to ensure that our people ultimately benefit, can’t be a crime?

So, as the year draws to a close, I hope you are as invigorated as I am with the resurgence of our civil society organisations. And like me, you must also get involved if you are not already. Section 27, Casac, Sanco and so many more — to all of you I say thank you. Thank you for your agency and activism. DM


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