Blurred Lines - Civil Society Organisations in South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy

"Civil society must change the colonial paradigm within which civil society operates in South Africa. These formations take an oppositional posture. These institutions masquerade as representatives of the people. The lines get blurred between them and the parliamentary opposition”.

These words, spoken by a senior government official on the eve of the twenty year anniversary of South Africa’s democracy, provide an occasion for pause to consider the role that civil society organisations are, and should be, playing in a democratic society such as ours. At the dawn of democracy, civil society’s role in supporting the entrenchment of democratic norms in government and society was welcomed with open arms by the new government leaders that were only recently in the trenches with civil society to defeat apartheid. It was not unheard of, for example, that a committee in parliament would seek assistance from civil society groups to provide drafts on various aspects of proposed legislation. This was certainly the case in 1999 when the Justice Committee commissioned the Open Democracy Campaign Group, the precursor to the Open Democracy Advice Centre, to draft sections of the Protected Disclosures Bill, before it became the Protected Disclosures Act, South Africa’s whistleblower protection law.
 
However, as society evolved and government structures and systems matured, so did the relationship between government and civil society begin to change. Yet, another factor contributing to this changing of the relationship is the flight of international aid from civil society to the state, which at times triggered a review of the terms of reference and the relevance of the work of civil society organisations. The impact was greatest felt on the governance and human rights sector of civil society. A number of organisations in this sector either floundered or had to review their strategies on the advancement of human rights and good governance. Some newer ones, much smaller and with a niche focus soon emerged. The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) is part of this group. Since its inception in 2000, ODAC was one of a handful of organisations championing transparency and right-to-know laws as critical tools for ensuring good governance. It was the only entity, within and outside structures of the state, working to advance better protection of people that blew the whistle on corruption.
 
The governance and human rights sector of civil society remains a difficult sector to work in because of the perception that government officials sometimes hold of organisations within this sector, as vividly demonstrated by the quotation above, but also because of limited resources available to this sector to carry out its work in support of democracy and advancement of human rights. As indicated above, international aid has migrated from the sector and South African private philanthropy is more comfortable with supporting 'non-controversial' issues such as sports, arts, culture and education than support projects that are seen to be in the political realm such as governance and human rights, with the obvious exception of secretive private funding of political parties.
 
In 2013 R7.8 billion was spent by corporate South Africa on corporate social investment (CSI) and R3.5 billion of this was allocated to nonprofit organisations. This amount was allocated mostly to the six most supported sectors which are, by order of the level of support; education, health, children, development, environment, and economic development. Democracy and governance does not make it to the statistical table. A recent demonstration of this happened in 2011 after the Protection of State Information Bill had been tabled in parliament by the minister of state security a year before. The chairperson of one of the biggest retailers in South Africa made what was an unsual remark by a South African corporate leader, by criticising the Bill. In a country where business does not make bold to criticise government openly, this was received with surprise and encouragement. However, when the retail group was approached to support civil society formations in their fight against the more draconian provisions of the Bill, the group responded by saying they had allocated all their CSI investment to sports programmes.
 
Despite these challenges, the democracy, governance and human rights sector of civil society has continued to be active in ensuring adherence to our constitutional principles of openness, accountability, respect for human rights and the rule of law. While there used to be only ODAC working for better protection for whistleblowers, now there is CorruptionWatch building up on that work and bringing issues of the impact of corruption closer to the public imangination. While ODAC and a few others created awareness about the importance of access to information laws in enforcing honest delivery of public services, now you have the Right2Know Campaign building on this work and making the Promotion of Access to Information Act meaningful to people in Delft, Gugulethu, Sebokeng and many other places far away from the hallways of parliament and the Union Buildings.
 
After 20 years after democracy, civil society still has a role to play in ensuring that the democratic divident acrues to all and not just the the privileged and politically connected. Civil society has to, and can, continue to work towards strengthening our democratic order. Shelagh Gastraw of Inyathelo South African Institute for Social Advancement puts it very aptly when she says: “civil society needs to reclaim its space and entrench those values that contribute to a truly free and fair society that is characterised by a respect for human rights, inclusivity, consultation, transparency and accountability.” There is still much work to do. Civil society is up to the task of making its own contribution towards securing the democratic gains of the last twenty years. A more inclusive approach by government leaders and an investment into our democratic order by business will ensure that this work gets done.
 
 - Mukelani Dimba is the executive director of the Open Democracy Advice Center (ODAC).

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