Civil Society: State Relations in the Spotlight

governance service delivery sustainability accountability CSOs
Tuesday, 5 February, 2013 - 13:18

This article focuses on South African civil society organisations, the challenges they face and the significance of partnering with the state to provide services to the people

Concerns over a ‘failing state’ and the need for transformation and diversity in civil society representation were some of the talking points at a recent gathering of the Goedgedacht Forum for Social Reflection.

The two-day meeting of representatives from civil society, business and government interrogated how to improve the relationship between the state and civil society. Discussions pointed to unease about a growing alienation between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and various state structures. In expressing concern over the ‘dismal signs of a failing state’, former MP and deputy chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Dr Alex Boraine, highlighted that civil society now more than ever has an important function in South Africa’s democracy:

“Against a power hungry state, civil society is called to play an ever increasing role in combatting this slide towards a one party state, and a state which is becoming increasingly unstable.”

Dr Borainne raised the alarm over civil society’s‘diminishing role as watch dog’ due to the tough economic climate. He reflected on especially the plight of advocacy organisations while, generally, he believed that ‘many organisations are in serious trouble’.

The Greater Good SA’s Jobs Losses and Service Cuts Survey among close to 700 nonprofit organisations in 2012 found that 80 percent of participants have experienced significant funding cuts over the previous year, and over 64 percent had to cut services to their beneficiaries.

Lucy Jamieson from the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town (UCT), agreed that advocacy organisations were disappearing faster than the rest and that especially funds for networking were no longer forthcoming. She described the complications when the government funds a network, such as Childline, because it then becomes difficult to challenge and criticise the state.

The need for civil society–state collaboration alongside civil society’s watchdog role and the impact on this role by the state acting as a funder of nonprofit services are making it a complicated relationship that is often characterised by conflict. A participant described some inherent reasons for this conflict as competition for money due to overseas funding being channeled through the state; civil society’s exposure of inadequacies of the state, which leads to antagonism; and competition for recognition between nonprofits and organs of the state.

The question of who in civil society structures represents and speaks for whom came up throughout the dialogue, as did issues on self-regulation, accountability and the general lack of diverse representation in nonprofit organisations.

“Civil society is seen as a vestige of white interests clinging onto privilege” and this makes it difficult for the sector to interact with the state, said UCT’s Pierre de Vos. Stanley Henkeman, from the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, called for dialogue on how privilege is entrenched: “It is privilege that helps getting agency and resources. That’s where we fall short on accountability.”

Participants also pointed out that the majority of voices, the ‘views of the masses’ are not represented around the table in these kinds of conversations, and that it is critical to find ways of including their views. Social movements such as Equal Education and the Treatment Action Campaign were mooted as examples of including and representing the people – which also make them more credibility in the eyes of government. It was suggested that that NGOs build closer alliances and partnerships with such movements.

While the gathering agreed that the nonprofit sector needs greater accountability, transparency and measuring of impact, questions and concerns were raised about the government’s perceived move to regulate the sector through proposed amendments to the Nonprofit Organisations Act.

Charmaine Smith attended the Goedgedacht Forum for Social Reflection dialogue. She is the communication and knowledge manager of the Children’s Institute, UCT.The full report and presentations are available on:

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