Can Civil Society Amplify Its Voice?

By Frank Meintjies · 21 Oct 2013

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Picture: PUSH
Picture: PUSH

Some parts of South African civil society are very weak. Faced with various problems, quite a few civil society organisations live with the constant threat of closure and many have been forced to cut back on programme work.

Other parts of civil society are vibrant. There is strength at the local level. Although many community organisations, including advice offices, are limping along, there is also vibrancy and assertiveness as expressed, for example, in the form of the daily service delivery protests.

We also need to take account of the persistent flowering of community-level associations – stokvels, burial societies and the social units of faith-based organisations. In a situation where 50% of people live in poverty and children go hungry, these formations help build household and community resilience.

Overall, the biggest strategic weakness of civil society organisations is the inability to escalate their voices. They are not part of wider debates and their voices are barely audible in the search for national solutions. The root cause is their atomisation: Civil society organisations seldom work together or act as a sector. Many organisations are concerned with their own survival and sometimes they fall victim to “divide and rule” strategies.
For our society, this is a major missed opportunity. To uproot the intractable and pervasive problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality, the country needs all hands on deck. All too frequently, the civil society voice is left out of problem analysis and planning – shutting out key perspectives.

For civil society organisations, lacking a coordinated voice - and being absent from key national and provincial forums - makes it harder to address root causes. They may continue to excel at picking up on specific cases, as the Built Environment Support Group recently did with regard to a serious case of corruption in Pietermaritzburg. But they would forego the opportunity to work with government to systemically combat corruption or, as civil society organisations, to combine resources to erect early warning systems, support whistle-blowers and to pressure provincial government to end bad practices.

Despite a legislative framework with many positive aspects, conditions are generally not good for civil society organisations. Many good intentions from the mid 90s are not being properly implemented. The registration system, the non-profit registration process, seems to be on the blink. Like an old computer with software that cannot manage the information, the system has slowed down and the data retrieved is out-dated and unreliable.

Attempts to set up a home-grown funding system to respond to the shrinking of overseas funding are on the rocks. When I worked in government, I was directly involved with a process that aimed to build on the funding history of Kagiso Trust and Beyers Naude that supported development and human rights work via Civil society organisations in the eighties. Following consultations with Kagiso Trust and the Independent Development Trust, we formed the National Development Agency (NDA). That idea has been subverted: instead of strengthening civil society, the NDA has become a development agent itself, funding initiatives such as poultry farming and brick-making projects.

The National Lottery was also meant to be a lynch-pin of indigenous funding – but for a long while it was left to its own devices and no elected office-bearer paid any attention to what it did. Although it has improved since, at one stage the “we are our own bosses” attitude got so bad that a judge spoke out, telling the institution that the funds it held were not “‘gratuities’ which are allocated at the board’s discretion”. In a 2010 judgement, Judge Azhar Cachalia also slammed the National Lotteries Board for rejecting good applications on minor administrative grounds. He expressed concern that socially worthy projects were “being deprived of the opportunity to deliver much needed social services.”

Statistics South Africa still refuses to help measure the size and scope of the sector, despite requests going back more than ten years. With little effort, for example, adding some questions to its national surveys, it could quite easily help us understand the sector: what value civil society organisations add, how many people they employ and whether the sector is waxing or waning.

Then there is the question of government attitudes to the sector. Politicians of the internal mass democratic movement (and some exiled counterparts, depending on whether they engaged civil society organisations abroad) were skilled at working with organisations that held shared objectives, but remained autonomous. But that capability, outlook and confidence - an ability to engage and co-operate even when you lack control - is generally not present in government. Much more dominant is the attitude that sees 100 percent loyalty to the reigning political party or faction as a prerequisite for collaboration or engagement.

It would seem that those departments that turn away from CSO engagement are not concerned about the loss of valuable input into policy processes. In its submission to the National Planning Commission, the Isandla Institute noted “a dominant political culture, across political parties that considers these parties as the ‘rightful’, if not sole, custodians of citizens’ aspirations and interests”. This culture, in many cases, fuels intolerance of civil society organisations' input.

Government has no single line on how to relate to civil society organisations: departments can choose to ‘like’ or shun organisations working in the sector. Some departments work well with civil society organisations; others are dismissive and a few are hostile.

What is needed, especially if we want accelerated progress towards people-centred development, is a return to the notion of ‘revolutionary’ relationships. Such relationships - sometimes co-operating, sometimes differing, continuously collaborating on pro-poor initiatives - are not smooth or easy. But they contribute to a vibrant democracy, they add value (diverse ideas) and they power the society to meeting its higher-level goals.

Of course, the civil society sector has internal weaknesses. Firstly, civil society organisations face leadership challenges. There has been a 'brain drain' to the public sector and, at a local level, there’s the constant seepage of trained people from unpaid or poorly paid community based organisation positions into posts provided by other sectors.

Secondly, civil society organisations are grappling with changes at the level of values. Larger organisations frequently face a conflict between professionalism and a sense of old-fashioned activism. Such civil society organisations, usually based in South Africa’s three biggest cities, also face the challenge of continued 'connection' with local communities, local struggles and the realities of far-flung areas.

Thirdly, the sector faces a range of funding problems. Apart from general funding shortfalls, there are huge challenges related to funding for advocacy work as well as for fairer distribution of funding to community based organisations and for civil society work in Cinderella provinces such as Northern Cape and the Free State.

These three problems feed into another underlying problem - a lack of self esteem on the part of the sector: the sense of knowing who you are and what you stand for, a commitment to speaking up for yourself and the willingness to participate in societal debates regardless of whether you are invited or not.

Despite their weaknesses, civil society organisations remain important. The sector makes significant contributions on many fronts: health, education, water & sanitation, welfare services, justice and environment. It has a clutch of astute and well-informed leaders and is often at the forefront of monitoring the implementation of human rights. But the question is this: can civil society organisations, despite their diversity, come together more often to discuss shared visions and, where necessary, act as a sector on issues that concern them?

Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

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Social activist Verified user
25 Oct

Civil Society

You are on the spot with your comments, Frank, what many of us have been saying for an all too long number of years. The frustration, that so many civil society organisations cannot work together, is overwhelming sometimes. There is so much work needing to be done, as well as coming together to stand up against poor governmental decisions and policies. The phrase 'social cohesion' is bandied about but how many consider it in all its forms and possibilities? It is all too easy for us to mutter aluta continua - but what does each one of us do to truly stand up to the continuing struggle? How many can let go of their egos, their positions, their opinions and find a consensus? Too few, I am afraid.

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