25 years later, South African civil society still battling government in people’s interests

Posted by Janice Scheckter on 31 August 2021, 18:40 SAST

Published by Civicus 3 October 2018

Republished with permission from Civicus Media

By William Gumede

Let’s imagine for a moment that aliens had visited South Africa in late 1993, abducted an ordinary South African, then returned him or her home exactly 25 years later.

The abductee might very well be shocked at how our democracy project has turned out – at all the changes we’ve gone through and where the country is today, particularly politically. But among the things they would see as having largely maintained course in that time, would be the role and impact of civil society.

As we celebrate our diverse cultures on Heritage Day, worth celebrating also is a civil society culture that has not only promoted cultural diversity but that is itself diverse, with a hard-won heritage of tirelessly fighting for the rights of the people in this country.

William Gumede DWF2FSolomon Moremong

The collapse of apartheid was a success story of global and local civil society pressure against the apartheid government. In the 1980s, civil society organisations (CSOs) were mobilised and highly motivated to challenge the discrimination, repression and anti-democratic policies and practices of the state. Today, they find themselves still playing the role of pushing back against the state’s failure to adequately serve the interests of the people. In recent years, CSOs 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.

South Africa’s civil society landscape is much more diverse, dynamic and assertive in holding government accountable, fighting corruption and supporting democracy and democratic institutions, than in many comparable developing countries. But there has been a dramatic mobilisation of civil society in South Africa, and across Africa, against poor governance, not seen since the fight for independence and against apartheid in Africa.

Indeed, the historic, ongoing Judicial Inquiry into State Capture came about after widespread public condemnation of the impact of the capture of state institutions on the country’s integrity and demands for accountability – a campaign which civil society organisations were involved in leading.

South Africa’s model constitution provides a special place for civil society to play an oversight role over democratic institutions, monitor human rights and to give citizens, especially the poor, vulnerable and excluded, the tools to know and assert their rights.

Civil society groups have in the post-1994 era continued to hold the democratic government to account. However, upholding democratic rights has often come at a price. Anti-democratic elements within the ANC government have often frowned upon civil society organisations and activists’ actions to hold government and leaders accountable, demanding they be proscribed, and alleging they are fronts either for apartheid-era groups or foreign enemies.

South Africa has had five national presidents and four ANC presidents since 1994. Two of them were forced out of power after intense challenges from civil society, demonstrating its power to bring about political change. Civil society organisations took Zuma to court over the multiple incidents of corruption and manipulation of state institutions for private gain. Again, ANC critics of Zuma leveraged the civil society mobilisation against him, to campaign to prevent Zuma getting his handpicked successor, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma taking over from him, and eventually forced him to resign as state president.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki faced long-running civil society opposition for his refusal to make HIV/Aids treatment available at public hospitals, his perceived lack of consultation and marginalisation of critics. Mbeki’s critics in the ANC surfed the way of anti-Mbeki mobilisation by civil society organisations to mobilise and prevent him from being re-elected as ANC president at the party’s 2007 Polokwane national conference.

It was a group of CSOs that led a successful legal challenge in 2017 to stop the Zuma-led government from carrying out a nuclear deal with Russia that would have cost taxpayers trillions of rands and been ultimately been disastrous for our economic future.

Organisations have pushed for the implementation of critical socio-economic rights, such as the right to housing, health, food and social welfare, which have not fully been realised. In 2000, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and a group of civil society organisations, in what is now referred to as the Grootboom case, successfully petitioned the courts to order government to provide housing “for people with no access to land”.

South African civil society has also fought hard to change archaic sexist, homophobic and racist public attitudes which go against the constitution. In 2007, two lesbians, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa were murdered in Soweto. The following year, Eudy Simelane, a player for South Africa’s national women’s football team Banyana Banyana, was killed. South Africa has liberal laws on gender equality, freedom of sexual orientation and allowing single-sex marriage.

In 2016, South Africa aligned itself with African countries in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to oppose the appointment of an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity by the UN Human Rights Council. However, South African civil society organisations sent an open letter to then Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, asking the department for SA to break from the conservative African lobby and adopt a pro-gay rights stance in line with the country’s democratic constitution.

South Africa’s trade unions have ensured through public campaigns, the adoption, and entrenchment of basic employee rights, including the right to strike, and minimum safety and working conditions for those in formal employment. The trade union movement played an instrumental role in securing the adoption of a minimum wage – even if the agreed minimum wage of R20 an hour is low.

Local civil society organisations have also been holding mining companies to account for failure to implement promises to build low-cost housing, boost local economic development and rehabilitate the environment in return for lucrative mining licenses. In 2016, civil society organisations, faith-based organisations and community organisations launched a series of protests against Lonmin’s lack of implementation of its promised building of low-cost housing, local economic development and environmental rehabilitation.

South Africa’s civil society has provided public services in many instances of public service delivery failures across the country. The Johannesburg Child Welfare, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) and Cotlands, for instance, provide essential basic services, where the state is often absent.

Civil society organisations have also publicly educated citizens about their rights – in a country with a large illiteracy where unscrupulous political, business, traditional and religious leaders have exploited the lack of knowledge of the poor to enrich themselves.

In spite of declining funding, South African civil society has largely stepped up to the challenge to defend the constitution, democracy and its institutions. It has fought public and private corruption. Civil society organisations have helped protect vulnerable South African citizens from government abuse – by fighting on behalf of ordinary citizens. They have strengthened the capacity of the state by often providing alternative public services where the state fails. They have made alternative information available, where governments and leaders have either hidden or obscured the facts and they have fought to scrap apartheid-era laws, which deny democratic rights to citizens. CSOs have supported democratic institutions, when these were being marginalised, corrupted and manipulated for selfish ends by some ANC leaders.

In a society in which large numbers of citizens are illiterate and where politicians use the ignorance of citizens to enrich themselves, cover up their corruption, or blame colonialism and apartheid for their own current failures, many civil society organisations have educated citizens about their rights. They have also held corporates accountable for abusing citizens, destroying the environment and for corruption. Without active civil society organisations, the rollback of democratic rights in the past few years, the decline in the public service delivery and rising corruption would have been ultimately worse.

In recent times many industrial countries, led by populist, right wing and ultranationalist governments, have dramatically reduced the funding for African and South African civil society organisations.

However, depriving civil society organisations of funding will increase corruption, poor governance and violence on the continent – which is likely to impact cause industrialised countries, mass migrations of Africans to Europe in search of jobs, safety and peace continue.  

It is hoped that the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture will not be the last time that the South African public, supported and led by civil society, holds those in power accountable for wrongdoing that threatens their democracy. It’s impossible to project where the country might be 25 years from now but we hope that South African civil society might still be in the trenches in the battle to see that the interests of the people are served by government.


William Gumede is executive chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation, Associate Professor at the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, a former editor, best-selling author, and has held several leadership roles in civil society.

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