Civil society and the post-Polokwane South African state: assessing civil society’s prospects of improved policy engagement - Publications


Civil society and the post-Polokwane South African state: assessing civil society’s prospects of improved policy engagement

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November 10, 2009

By Steven Friedman and Eusebius McKaiser

Citizens' organisations in SA may have more influence than they believe — but only if they think more strategically and try harder to represent people at the grassroots. This is the key finding of a study of civil society organisations undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg and funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The centre felt the study was needed as democracy is a system in which government is meant to serve citizens and respond to their needs. This is not possible unless citizens organise to tell government (and fellow citizens) what they want and need and campaign for their concerns to be acted on.

The ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to influence law and policy is a crucial test of democracy’s health. Dramatic changes in the African National Congress’ (ANC’s) leadership at Polokwane altered the political climate and ensured CSOs were operating in a new environment. Opinion on what this means for organised citizens’ ability to influence the government, differs sharply.

For some, Polokwane was a setback for civil society, because it brought to power leaders more interested in strengthening the ANC’s hold on power than in listening to citizens. For others, it created new opportunities for citizen influence, either because the new leaders were more willing to listen than those they replaced or because the defeat of the previous leadership created a more open and fluid environment, which would be more open to citizen influence.

Civil society’s effectiveness relies largely on whether CSOs read the climate accurately. So we convened discussions among civil society activists to analyse the climate and suggest responses.

Our report analysed the discussions and suggested a way forward to ensure CSOs wield as much influence as possible on public debate and government decisions. We found CSOs, particularly those committed to human rights and social equity, largely pessimistic about life after Polokwane. Most felt the change in ANC leadership promoted a social conservatism that threatened key rights protected by the constitution. They complained of what they saw as increased pressure for loyalty to the government and ruling party, and argued government talk of a new willingness to listen was an illusion.

Interestingly, given minorities’ fears after Polokwane, probably the most optimistic participants were white Afrikaners, who felt new opportunities had opened for them. But among CSOs sharing the values that inspired the fight against apartheid, the mood was largely pessimistic.

This sense that the government is now more hostile to CSO campaigns for rights and equity is based on experience. There are legitimate fears for the future of some human rights gains enshrined in the constitution. Despite that, we believe current thinking among much of civil society ignores important opportunities for citizen influence.

Civil society seems to see as new the negative trends that have been with us for some time. CSOs have felt for years that the government only pretends to listen. They also seem to rely far too much on whether the government is well disposed to them. This prompts two strategic misreadings.

One is to ignore difference and fluidity within government. All participants agreed that there were significant differences within the new government leadership, yet this was not always seen as an opportunity. But this it surely is, as leaders who have not agreed where they want to go are likely to be more open to independent ideas. It also ignores the new government’s need to distinguish itself from the previous one, which shows itself in, for example, new attitudes to HIV/AIDS. This creates opportunities for citizen influence.

Another is a tendency to assume citizens’ organisations can influence events only if the government wants to listen to them. One reason may be that too many “progressive” CSOs wrongly have assumed former civil society colleagues now in government would be natural allies; this may have created an unwarranted dependence on the sympathy of the government. But, as the experience of CSOs such as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) shows, government sympathy is often a result, not a cause, of CSO influence; governments are more likely to listen to organisations because they have built strong support in society. This suggests CSOs should be paying far more attention to ways in which they can enhance their influence in society.

If they did, they may well find that a society in which grassroots citizens have been protesting for four years against unaccountable government, and in which their frustrations are shared by many more affluent citizens, is a climate in which opportunities for winning support — and getting the government to listen — may be far more favourable than they believe.

But this requires that CSOs pay far more attention to the key constraint on their influence, as identified by the report: their shallow roots among the poor.

While it is fashionable to complain about the declining influence of citizens’ organisations in SA, we find civil society remains diverse, vigorous and vocal — it engages regularly in public debate and wields real influence. While CSOs closest to the ANC, such as Cosatu, are most influential, the TAC has shown it is possible to remain independent of the ANC and still influence events.

But civil society is also shallow. It is the preserve of the better off and better connected as most citizens lack the resources and access to organisation to participate in CSOs. This ensures that CSOs purporting to speak for the poor often lack roots among those whose concerns they champion. This stunts their influence, and makes it harder for them to mobilise the citizen support needed to influence decisions. The problem is not that CSOs ignore the poor: there are real obstacles to building democratic organisation at the grassroots of society. But, unless CSOs begin to find ways to help grassroots citizens enter the national debate by joining organisations that speak for citizens, civil society influence will be much weaker than it need be.

One other facet of current civil society thinking may need to change for CSOs to enable citizens to influence decisions that shape their lives. Citizen influence is impossible without democracy, and so the future of civil society influence depends on preserving democratic freedoms and institutions. All too often, CSOs are deeply concerned about the issue that motivates them, but not about the democracy that makes it possible for them to pursue these concerns.

Thus, attacks on grassroots social movements critical of the government — such as recent violence against Durban shack-dweller activists — are ignored by CSOs, despite the fact that they are a clear danger to citizen participation in decisions. Few CSOs are concerned enough about appointments to the judiciary and statutory human rights institutions or the vigour of Parliament, although all these issues determine whether CSOs can operate in the democratic environment they need if they are to be effective.

Just as citizen organisation is crucial to democracy, so too is democracy essential to citizen organisation. If CSOs ignore the need to defend and deepen democracy, the bleaker period some fear may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Download the report (pdf, 31 pages, 183 KB)

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