Theoretically speaking, civil society and the government should have a somewhat harmonious relationship. Civil society organisations seek to influence the government into making decisions in the public interest. From that, governments understand what certain segments of the population need from them, and adjust their policy frameworks accordingly. Done right, the feedback loop benefits the citizens of the country concerned.
But this isn’t a political science seminar room, it’s the Republic of South Africa, where the government has bungled the running of the country to preposterous levels. It’s also where civil society organisations all around the country do not shy away from taking the government to court in an attempt to get them to do their jobs effectively.
South Africa is also the site where ministers are able to make disparaging and false statements designed to discredit these very civil society organisations. These falsehoods even enter into territory best described as that of conspiracy theorists being given a megaphone. Because of this, the best word to describe the relationship between the government and civil society is, well, acrimonious.
Civil society is important, and here’s why
We must have watchdogs for our democracy to work according to our constitutional ideals. To this end, we have several organisations, representing the public interest as envisaged by their group status or political ideals, and they challenge the government to consider the groups or ideals that they promote. They do this by commenting on proposed legislation, by writing opinion pieces and making television appearances on news platforms. They may also do this — in certain circumstances — through litigation. These organisations all fall under the umbrella of civil society.
Civil society organisations, at their best, use their platforms and positionality to ensure that the voices of the disadvantaged are heard, and that government acts accordingly.
To take the best-known example of civil society’s potential — remember how antiretroviral medication was first made accessible to the South African public? It was through the activism and litigation of civil society, namely the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The activism and litigation were important because the government headed by then-President Thabo Mbeki had it wrong with what can quite frankly be called Aids denialism.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Treatment Action Campaign admonishes Thabo Mbeki over HIV views following speech
Many people succumbed to HIV, unnecessarily so, before civil society stood up and litigated against the government, opening the door towards our current reality — folks can now receive free antiretroviral medication from the public healthcare system, and can live long lives despite living with HIV. Civil society helped with that.
This is why the recent comments by public officials regarding civil society are not only distasteful and a way to pass the buck on their political failures, but they threaten the very democracy that they profess to hold in high regard.
Reckless comments are ‘politician-speak’ at its worst
There was Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi’s statement on the Helen Suzman Foundation’s Zimbabwean Exemption Permit court action last year. Motsoaledi rattled off serious accusations against the HSF and against civil society organisations as sites of sabotage against the South African government. These are accusations that Motsoaledi has still not quite addressed.
Similarly, Johannesburg MMC for Public Safety Mgcini Tshwaku’s public comments on the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) were also quickly disproven by anybody with even cursory knowledge of the role that civil society has played, both as agitators against the state and as archivists of the terrible conditions of certain buildings in the Johannesburg inner-city.
And who can forget Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe recently insinuating that civil society organisations are funded by the CIA in an effort to destabilise and undermine the South African government? Making such a serious accusation would be taken seriously if there was evidence. To this day, Mantashe has not produced any.
These three incidents — and of course, there have been more over the years — do more than just clog up our political discourse with unsubstantiated nonsense. These incidents also intentionally undermine civil society’s role in contemporary South Africa, and that is a major problem.
These various statements are almost Trumpian in nature in that there is no attempt to give further context or evidence for the claims they make. It is almost acknowledged that what they say is not meant to be put forth as factual. Instead, it is seen as good old “politician-speak”. However, it must be asked — is it good to portray a helpful and productive part of our society as anti-democratic forces hellbent on undermining the state? And if so, is letting these unproven utterances go untested the right thing to do?
A challenge to the public officials of South Africa
Something has to change. To be specific, the acrimonious attitude of government officials towards civil society organisations needs to change. The idea that government officials can publicly say such things about civil society — as if they are private citizens in conversation with their friends — is not an idea that should be allowed to spread wings.
To be clear, the government need not agree with every single aspect of civil society’s methods or mandates. That is not what I am proposing. Deep disagreement can, and should, be allowed in a democratic nation. However, this disagreement should be based on respect and truth.
There is no legal basis for public officials to be respectful in their interactions with civil society, that much is true. However, they have an ethical responsibility to do so. Public officials are not ordinary citizens. By virtue of choosing a life in public service, they implicitly also choose to conduct public life according to a higher ethical standard than most individuals.
This is especially true when one considers the impact of such public comments on the populace. How are ordinary citizens meant to perceive civil society organisations when they are constantly told, by numerous government officials, that these organisations are anti-democratic cabals in cahoots with the CIA? Would this not trigger a coordinated attack on these organisations, which are portrayed as the biggest obstacle to government achieving its goals?
What impact does that have on the hardworking staff who work in these organisations? What impact does that have on smaller civil society organisations without the stature or financial muscle to hire security for themselves? What impact does that have on democracy?
Because of these concerns, it is perfectly reasonable to expect public officials to model to the rest of us South Africans how to disagree while refraining from using accusatory language that has no evidence behind it. The alternative is intimidating civil society into censoring itself for fear of government-initiated persecution. And in our current political climate, that is the last thing that we need as South Africans.
This is also not an attempt to deify the presence of civil society organisations in South Africa. There are things that they certainly can do better in terms of pure representation and disclosing funders, just to name two critiques. There are valid reasons to put civil society in the (metaphorical) dock.
But those reasons should come from a place of robust engagement, not from conspiracy theories which have no basis in known reality. Members of government should be able to communicate their displeasure with civil society organisations, pointing to specific policy and legislative areas of disagreement, while also promoting the fact that our democracy allows for such discussions to take place. After all, that’s how our democracy flourishes.
Surely the public officials of South Africa are capable of that? DM