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Civil society organisations: Guard dog of democracy or lapdog of powerful interests?

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Picture: GCIS – President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the keynote address at the 2023 Human Rights Day commemoration in De Aar, Northern Cape Province. Civil society organisations have been far less punishing to President Cyril Ramaphosa than to to former presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

Civil society organisations are powerful. The relentless jab and cross of civil rights movements, in South Africa, the Continent and the Globe played a significant role in bringing the apartheid regime to an end.

In democratic South Africa, the punch of civil society organisations has been felt by two former Presidents. Both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were unsteadied by and were to fall on the uppercut of societal outrage.

For Mbeki, it was his stance on HIV/Aids that brought fierce attack from civil society groups. For Zuma, the alleged hook and crook of state capture proved to be a fatal blow. By and large, civil society organisations have been far less punishing when it comes to current President Cyril Ramaphosa. This despite the fact that Ramaphosa has acted with much stealth on CR17 funding, and ordered that the bank records be sealed.

One would have expected a stronger arm of condemnation of Ramaphosa on the Phala Phala farm scandal, from civil society organisations, given that the President may well be guilty of corruption and conflict of interest. This soft-gloved approach suggests a factional hand of many so-called civil society organisations, in current day South Africa.

Civil society groups have been part of the rise and fall of democratic nations. And in some countries today, many on the African Continent, some of these movements are being seen by governments as the watchdogs of foreign interests rather than as loyal and protective guard dogs of the local communities and democratic principles and practices.

Civil organisation activists speak of how the space is shrinking fast for many movements. It is unfortunate for legitimate, grassroots-based and geared organisations that play an enormously valuable role in guarding democracy.

In their paper, ‘The role of civil society and social movements’, Seema Khan, Emile Combaz and Erika McAslan Fraser, write of how civil society organisations can offer immediate relief, as well as longer term transformative change – “by defending collective interests and increasing accountability; providing solidarity mechanisms and promoting participation; influencing decision making; directly engaging in service delivery and challenging prejudice”.

The prowess of civil society organisations, in the fight for just and democratic societies is unmatched, if directed correctly, and in the interests of ordinary citizens rather than powerful interests, organisations. Not all civil society movements are noble. Or rooted or invested in the communities they purport to serve.

In a 1997 ANC address, Nelson Mandela warned of the possibility that “some NGOs can be instruments of foreign government and institutions that fund them to promote the interests of these external forces”.

He referred to a 1996 Review of the US Aid Programme in South Africa, which had been prepared by US House of Representatives, Lester Munson, and Phillip Christenson. Their report found that “AID’s programme is not so much support for the Mandela government as support for AID’s undisclosed political activities within the South African domestic political arena involving the most difficult, controversial issues in South Africa”.

By funding advocacy groups to monitor and lobby for changes in government policies and even setting up trust funds to pay for legal challenges in court against the new government’s action or inaction, AID is in some respects making President Mandela’s task more difficult.”

Agenda matters. There are civil society groups so vested in the wellbeing of communities that politics is nowhere in sight. South Africa’s very own Gift of the Givers is such an organisation. It lives up to its motto of ‘Serving Humanity’.

The largest disaster response non-governmental organisation on the Continent, the organisation has provided R45 billion in aid to 30 countries. Always at the forefront of relief work, the organisation is currently involved in helping in Malawi after Cyclone Freddy.

The organisation is a true fighter for ordinary people and communities. On the other hand there are groupings, such as Save SA, which seemed to have been birthed for the sole purpose to take Jacob Zuma out of the Presidential ring, rather than helping to save South Africa, or eliminating social ills. After the knockout of Zuma, the organisation has gone quiet. Save SA has all but disappeared in the Ramaphosa era.

With the Continent facing what the United Nations describes as “the biggest food crisis in modern history”, the role of civil society movements is more important than ever before. Close to 200 multisectoral social movements, from over 30 African countries met in November 2022 in South Africa, “to map the way forward for social change on the continent”.

Tyler Dale Hauger, Senior Advisor at the Karibu Foundation writes how the “African Social Movement Baraza”, organised by Trust Africa, the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment (CAPSI), and the Wallace Global Fund, focused on a common practice and pathway for sustained social change from an African civil society perspective.

The approach was that change is not about putting a “bandage on the wound” but must be systemic. Activists expressed concern about the closure of the democratic space in which their social movements worked.

Amnesty International and CIVICUS have reported that civil society not only in Africa, but worldwide are being hit with legislation that compromises their capacity and impact. Twinned with this is the censoring of protests and criticism.

In his article, The Spread of Anti-NGO Measures in Africa, Godfrey Musila wrote how over the past 15 years, 11 African countries have adopted legislation or policies that improperly constrained nongovernmental organisations, and that many others were in the process of introducing such measures. “These laws” Musila writes “seek to impose state control over civil society, particularly NGOs that work on human rights and governance issues”.

Professor William Gumede has written extensively about the vital role an active and robust civil society can play in enabling, empowering, and enriching democracy. He writes of how South Africa’s civil society organisations have increasingly become the last line of defence fighting on behalf of ordinary citizens against out-of-control corruption, public service delivery failure and abuse of power by elected and public representatives.

UK Academic Julie Hearn has a slightly more jaded perspective. She argues that in South Africa, civil society organisations have focussed less on reconstructing the social order and more on “effective system maintenance”. This as Hearn writes “facilitated a newly legitimised South African state that presides over the same intensely exploitative economic system as in the past, but this time without a well-mobilised opposition”.

The space for civil society organisations in Africa is being squashed. In this process, it is hoped that while those that serve as the lapdogs foreign interests are neutered, that those that are the genuine guardians of democracy, and invested and rooted in local communities are not snuffed out.

The space of civil society organisations in South Africa is tenuous. In an article in the Daily Maverick, Mark Heywood wrote how “the heady days of activism in the 1990s and early 2000s, flush with the possibilities of a new Constitution, are gone. In the past decade the political and economic geography for civil society activism has changed. Today it’s almost unrecognisable”.

He then continued, “How do you shame a shameless government? How do you litigate for rights to healthcare and basic education against a state that claims to have no money to realise core socioeconomic rights? How do you enforce judgments against government departments which have shown themselves incapable of carrying out court orders?”

Last weekend President Cyril Ramaphosa engaged with a broad range of civil society organisations in order to ignite “greater co-operation and collaborative on working together to address and resolve socio-economic and political challenges facing the country and reconnect with its people”.

While a worthwhile and long-awaited initiative, South Africans should not hold their breath that this will happen any time soon. After all, the President’s promises have held little punch, and many civil society organisations more intent on guarding the President than the people.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.