Media: Revitalising civil society

17 02 2009

February 17, 2009 Edition 1
Matthew Savides
Source: Mercury

WHEN most political parties were banned and their leaders jailed during apartheid, it was civil society movements that took up the cudgels for justice and equality and pressured the Nationalist government.

However, since the birth of democracy, these movements have taken a back seat and many of their leaders have given up grassroots politics to take up positions in government or in civil society. The vacuum created by their absence, many analysts believe, is the reason why civil society movements have been ineffective in putting pressure on the ANC government to deliver services in many areas.
This has raised the call for civic movements to be reviewed, reinvented and revitalised to reach the illustrious heights of the 1980s and early 1990s.

A re-emergence of these bodies, analysts and civic organisations leaders believe, will make a difference in the run-up to this year’s national elections and the local government elections in 2011.

In recent years, however, community groups have been steadily organising into formal structures and becoming more vocal and active in their protests, especially against the lack of basic services like water, electricity and housing. But just how influential, if at all, these newly formed civil society groups will be in the April polls is unclear.

According to political commentator S’bu Zamisa, a director at the Centre for Public Participation, the results of more vocal civic movements in recent years are beginning to show.

When a decision was made to change provincial borders to move Khutsong and Matatiele out of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal respectively, residents were angry and protests against the decision turned violent.

Residents complained that services would diminish because of the decision. The matter was taken to the Constitutional Court.

Zamisa said that when the new ANC leadership took over, it heeded the residents’ concerns and realised the extent of their dissatisfaction – thus showing what a vibrant civic movement, whether formally organised or not, could achieve.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the shackdwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo was also forcing the government’s hand.

“They really are taking political parties and the government to task, and making them take notice,” Zamisa said.

Abahlali has previously taken both the eThekwini Municipality and the KwaZulu-Natal housing department to court over various issues, particularly eviction and, more recently, the Slums Act.

While the body, which represents shack dwellers from settlements across the country, recently lost its case over the Slums Act, it has won cases over illegal evictions several times in recent years.

Abahlali president S’bu Zikode said there was “a definite shift” in the way the organisation and its people were being treated.

Previously, he said, applications were not made to the courts ahead of evictions, but because of the organisation’s challenging of these cases in court – and the subsequent victories – applications were now being made beforehand.

He suggested that the muni- cipality had also taken on board many of the organisation’s comments regarding sanitation at informal settlements, and that these services were now being provided – sometimes after consultation with the movement.

“We are starting to see a definite shift in the way municipalities and the province are dealing with us, and are recognising informal settlements and their residents, and we are happy to see this shift,” Zikode said.

But while civic movements have made strides, they remain ed too weak or have links too loose to the government” to make any significant difference to this year’s election, said political analyst Protas Madlala.

“Under the previous apartheid regime, civil society was a strong voice. The groups were the voice of the underdogs and the disenfranchised.

“But since since democracy we have seen a slump in the civic movement, for a number of reasons. Under apartheid, these organisations had a lot of funding from abroad, but now much of the funding comes through the government – and people are not going to speak out and bite the hand that feeds them. Also, a large number of the strong civic leaders were absorbed by the government,” Madlala said.

While many civic groups might want to stand up, they could also be frightened to do so.

“They are in a dilemma if they do raise issues because they will be accused of siding with COPE or the DA. Very few will be like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which doesn’t give a damn (about threats), to put it bluntly. The TAC has remained a shining example in civic society, and I wish all civic organisations behaved like the TAC. If they did, the government would be stronger,” Madlala said.

Zamisa agreed with Madlala that many civil society groups had forged overly close ties to government.

Sayed Iqbal Mohamed, chairman of the Durban-based Organisation for Civic Rights, said that when civic activists joined the government, they deprived the civil movement of much-needed skills and passion.

He said it was essential for civic organisations to work with the government to “find common ground and to avoid polarisation”, and to participate in government projects, especially those that improved the quality of human life. But they should not get too close, he added.

Zamisa said that as civic movements moved too close to the government, they moved away from their core functions of holding the government to task, and responding to the needs of communities and marginalised groups.

Mohamed said: “Independent civic movements are the blood vessels of society – monitoring, directing and protecting our democratic values. Civic movements must be people-driven and independent of the government, with people’s needs pulsating from the core outward.”

Other civic movement leaders highlighted the importance of having strong organisations.

Zikode said civic organisations, especially those involved in mass mobilisation, forced elected officials to listen to “the people on the ground”.

It was one thing, he suggested, for the ANC to listen to the complaints and objections of opposition parties, but it was a completely different scenario when these complaints came from civic bodies.

“Strong civic organisations are crucial in today’s politics, where leaders seem to be focused on party politics over the needs of communities.

“If you have such organisations, then you’re in a situation in which you can remind the politicians about the people,” Zikode said.

South African National Civic Organisation president and ANC stalwart Ruth Bhengu, speaking in Durban in December, said civic movements needed to rebuild to their former glory of the 1980s – as this was the only way to ensure that the government was held accountable to the people.

“We can keep the government on its toes and force it to listen. It is ordinary people – men and women on the street – who have the power to influence government policies and hold the government accountable at all times, to assess the impact of service provision, to tell whether their socio-economic position is improving and to reject what is not good for them,” she said at the Sanco national conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

But the over-riding question is whether these organisations can make a difference in the polls.

And the jury is out on that one.

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