Civil Society and Democracy in South Africa

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Monday, 3 December, 2007 - 08:43

By Prof Adam Habib: Regime change can have significant impacts on society. And, this is all the more so if it occurs in an era of globalisation. Nowhere is this more evident than in South Africa where democratisation and globalisation have fundamentally transformed the society. In the process, civil society has itself been remolded in significant ways, the effects of which are only now becoming evident.

Thirteen years after the transition the most obvious outcome of the remolding process is the evolution of civil society into three distinct blocs, each of which is a product, to different degrees, of separate transitional processes.

The three different blocs within civil society - NGOs, survivalist agencies, and social movements - that emerged in response to structural factors such as the democratisation process and globalisation’s neo-liberal manifestation in South Africa, have very distinct relationships with the state. On the one end of the spectrum is a powerful set of formal service-related NGOs, which as a result of the more enabling environment created by the democratic regime, have entered partnerships with and/or sub-contracted to the state. These organisations have more engaged and collegiate relations with the state.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is a group of community-based structures, which actively challenge and oppose what they perceive as the implementation of neo-liberalism. These organisations, whose activists covet the status of social movements, also have an explicit relationship with the state. This relationship, depending on the organisation and the issue area, hovers somewhere between adversarialism and engagement, and sometimes involves both. But even when engaging the state, this is of a qualitatively different kind to that of the formal NGOs. The latter has a relationship with the state that is largely defined by its sub-contractual role, whereas the former is on a relatively more even footing, engaging the state in an attempt to persuade it through lobbying, court action, and even outright resistance.

In between these two sets of organisations is a third, more survivalist and informal, mainly in marginalised communities, who have no relationship with the state. These organisations are preoccupied with assisting people to survive the ravages of neo-liberalism. They receive neither resource, nor do they covet recognition, from the state. They are preoccupied with the task of simply surviving the effects of the state’s policies. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the majority of these associations even recognise that the plight of the communities they located in is largely a result of the policy choices of political elites.

Of course, these distinctions within civil society are not as stark and rigid as they are depicted here. In the real world, there are many organisations that straddle the divide and blur the boundaries between one and more of these blocs. Some organisations, like the TAC, display adversarial relations with the state on one issue and more collegiate relations on another. Other organisations, like the Homeless Peoples Federation (HPF), challenge and oppose some state institutions but have established partnerships with others. What is important to remember of the contemporary era is that democratisation and globalisation have facilitated the reassertion of the plural character of civil society and undermined the homogenous effects that the anti-apartheid struggle had on this sector.  

Most activists, politicians and government officials recognise this plurality of civil society, at least at the rhetorical level. But in most cases, its meaning has not been internalised for had it been, we would not have the constant demands from these actors for a single homogenous set of relations between civil society and the state. For state officials, and the leadership and politicians of the ruling party, the most appropriate relationship between civil society and the state is one founded on collegiality. In this view, service-related NGOs which contract with the state and community organisations which partner with the ruling party, are behaving in a manner conducive to democracy. Indeed, the ruling party has gone out of its way to reward such behavior, mainly through providing access to corporatist institutions and other public participation channels established by the state.

But sometimes the state has intervened more aggressively in manipulating its resources to benefit some, and undermine other, civil society institutions. The most notorious case of this is Eskom’s write-off of electricity arrears in Soweto. In this case, the previous Minister of Public Enterprises, Jeff Radebe, convinced the public parastatal to write-off electricity arrears in the township in an effort to demobilise the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) who had been gaining ground by connecting poor residents who had been disconnected for failure to pay their arrears. Eskom officially negotiated the write-off with the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO), the national civic body officially aligned to the ANC, both to delegitimise the SECC and publicly demonstrate the benefits of alignment with the ruling party. This blatant abuse of public resources by the state to intervene and influence the outcome of competition between two civic associations, while rare, does graphically demonstrate what the ruling party perceives as an appropriate state-civil society relationship, and the extent to which it would go to advance its model of state-civic engagement. 

But the state is not alone in wanting to advance a homogenous state-civil society agenda. Radical activists within civil society also advance a homogenous vision, except in their case; the relationship should not be collegial, but rather adversarial. Of course this is not a dominant view within civil society. Indeed, a majority of activists, mainly located in COSATU, TAC and even SANCO, hold the view that the strategic priority of the contemporary era is to struggle for the soul of the ANC by remaining in partnership with it, while retaining the independence and organisational capacity to take to the streets when required. But others, both activists and scholars, argue that a strategic partnership with the ruling party has the systemic effect of consolidating existing power relations. These, they maintain, enable state elites to be more responsive to the interests of black entrepreneurs and foreign and domestic capital. The antidote to this state of affairs is to break civil association’s partnership with the ruling party, reintroduce political uncertainty into the political system, and thereby make political representatives more responsive to the interests of poor and marginalised citizens.

In any case, it needs to be noted that a single homogenous set of state-civil society relations is not conducive to the consolidation of democracy. Whether it is the state’s view of collegiate state-civil society relationships, or the adversarial alternative of the radical activists, neither on its own would facilitate the deepening of democracy. Indeed, it is only the plurality of civil society, and its consequent diversity of state-civil society engagements, that is beneficial for democracy and governance in the country. The informal-based CBOs enhance democracy at the simplest level because they enable ordinary people to survive. The establishment of more formal relations between them and the state would subvert their character and thus compromise this role. The more formal NGOs’ collaborative relationship with the state is largely a product of the services they render for the state. And, in a society confronted with massive backlogs and limited institutional capacity, this role can only be to the benefit of democracy since it facilitates and enables service delivery to ordinary citizens and residents. Finally, the adversarial and conflictual role of new social movements and more formal CBOs enhances democracy for it creates a fluidity of support at the base of society. This can only be beneficial for it permits the reconfiguration of power within society, forcing the state not to take its citizens for granted, and effecting a systemic shift to the left which may create the possibility for a more people-centered, Keynesian-oriented developmental agenda.

These diverse roles and functions undertaken by different elements of civil society, then, collectively create the adversarial and collaborative relationships, the push and pull effects, which sometimes assist and other times compel the state to meet its obligations and responsibilities to its citizenry. The plurality of civil society and the diverse sets of relations that it engenders with the state is thus the best guarantee for the consolidation of democracy in South Africa.

- This article written by the University of Johannesburg Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Advancement, University of Johannesburg, Adam Habib, appeares in Prodder - NGOs and Development in South Africa 2008.

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