For over eight years, I have volunteered, worked for and worked with a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As such, I truly understand the value of a strong civil society, as it does have a very important role to play in the creation of positive change. I have also however had to disengage from some organisations because I have strongly felt that they play a part in further 'disempowering' the marginalised.
Participation is an essential part of the sector. People are 'experts' in their own situations and should thus fully contribute in seeking and applying solutions. The government has rightfully been called from excluding citizens from being involved in being a part of decisions affecting their lives- however this is a problem not just unique to government, but taking place in all sectors of South African life, including civil society. As a sector, we need to deeply question what we mean when active participation is referred to. I do not have answers to this, but I can tell you what participation isn't.
Participation is not a ‘rent-an-activist’ occasion, which sees people being bussed to pickets they know nothing about under the guise of it ‘being for their own good'. Participation is not having communities represented at events to create a perception of grassroots involvement, when in fact they are not given any platform to air their views and contribute meaningfully. Participation is not exploiting the very real struggles of people to gain more funding or to profile one’s organisation.
This is a sentiment also expressed by Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Unemployed People’s Movement and the Rural Network who write: "There are middle class people who are usually working in or with NGOs and universities who think that they should be the ones to lead the peoples' struggles. No one ever elected them or mandated them, but there they are - acting like the bosses of our struggles. They often call themselves socialists, but sometimes they call themselves anarchists or autonomists or environmentalists or human rights activists. For many of these people the role of grassroots activists is only to mobilise other poor black people to come to their meetings. Sometimes grassroots activists are paid to bring other people to these meetings. We never have any real role in planning these meetings. Sometimes we are more likely to be asked to sing a song than to give an opinion. The meetings are supposed to be about us and for us, but they are never planned or run with us. We find that what is called a ‘movement space’ or a ‘People's Space’ is really only a space for NGOs and academics. Once again, it is implied that our only role is to obey instructions from above."
An integral part of civil society should be to create a space that amplifies the voices of the marginalised, which increasingly does not seem to be happening. The voice of the sector in South Africa is undoubtedly strong, but it seems to be drowning out the voices of the authentic owners of the struggle.
As a sector, we need to start having tough discussions about the transformation of the sector and the ownership of struggles. It is naïve for the sector to operate as if South Africa is a post-racial society, because we are still a long way from there. Is the sector representative of the nation and if so, in what capacity? Do NGOs respond in an 'ag shame' manner to the struggles of the people or do they respond in a more constructive, empowering way- standing in solidarity with those whom they claim to serve? Do NGOs do enough to ensure that the voices of those whom they claim to serve are heard or do they instead take over and thus also contributing to drowning out the voices of people?
Tough questions, but necessary to ask if indeed the sector is for the people. Anything short of this is to objectify the poor and the marginalised, because like Paulo Freire said, “Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence… …to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.” A sentiment we need to heed now more than ever.