The State of Civil Society in South Africa

4 Nov 2013

A+ A= A-
    Print this page      0 comments

Civil society is considered to be an important stakeholder in any country that seeks to deepen its democracy. Defined as operating outside of the state and of the market, it is often referred to as the third sector.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are varied in their character and in their purpose. But there is a common thread that holds them together, which is that they exist in public life to promote public good. In fact, the strength of a country’s civil society is often used as a measure to determine the strength of it's democracy.

As South Africa approaches the anniversary of its second decade as a democracy, Fazila Farouk of SACSIS talks to veteran of the sector in South Africa, Piroshaw Camay, about the scope and state of civil society in South Africa.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

Civil society is considered to be an important stakeholder in any country that seeks to deepen its democracy. Defined as operating outside of the state and of the market, it is often referred to as the third sector.

Civil society is diverse. The organisations of civil society are varied in their character and in their purpose. Some organisations have a more developmental orientation; others are more welfarest in their orientation. And then you would get some also (that) take a much more independence stance -- who seek to hold those who are in power to account.

But there is a common thread that holds all these organisations together and that is that they exist in public life. They also exist to promote some sort of public good or social good. In fact the strength of a country’s civil society is often used as a measure to determine the strength of a country’s democracy.

South Africa will be celebrating 20 years as a democracy next year in April and it’s an opportune moment for us to take a step back - and reflect on the strength and scope of South African civil society.

And I can’t thing of anyone better to have the conversation with then Piroshaw Camay, the executive director of the Co-operative for Research and Education.

Piroshaw is a veteran of South African civil society.

Welcome to SACSIS Piroshaw.


FAZILA FAROUK: Before I talk about civil society per se, let’s talk a little bit about you and your involvement in civil society. Tell us - how long have you been involved in civil society?

PIROSHAW CAMAY: Well for far too many years. I’ve never worked in a for-profit organisation. I started working life in the Johannesburg public libraries. At that time, it was called the Non-European libraries and ran the Fordsburg library.

At that time, I got involved in the union, which was at that time a Coloureds only Union and as the only Indian employed at that time in the Johannesburg Council, I had quite a long battle with them to accept my membership. After that, I worked at Sached Trust, which was an adult education structure, which immediately after ‘76 produced a newspaper supplement in The World newspaper at that time.

FAZILA FAROUK: So you’re talking about involvement from the ‘70s onwards.

PIROSHAW CAMAY: That’s correct.

That does date me and age me and my sell by date is probably past. But I worked in the trade union and was the general secretary of the Council of Unions of South Africa, which established the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers). 

And in ’89 I resigned from the federation, primarily because at that time, the federation decided not to participate in what was then called the (Conference) for a Democratic Future. This was a meeting held at WITS to ensure that internal structures in the country adopted the Harare Declaration, which had been accepted in Harare a couple of months before.

And it was important that organisations within the country endorsed the Harare Declaration to ensure that the UN would adopt the Declaration and the way forward for building a democratic country in South Africa. This was back in ’89. So, in 1990 we established the Co-operative for Research and Education, primarily with three different purposes. The one was to provide information to communities about their rights and obligations. The second was to ensure that we instilled a democratic future through civil society being independent; and thirdly through research work and training work that we have done since.

FAZILA FAROUK: Piroshaw can you tell us a little bit about South African civil society in the time after our democracy? How has it evolved in the last 20 years?

PIROSHAW CAMAY: I think back in the early ‘90s we had a very romantic notion of how civil society was going to engage with the new democratic government. We thought at that time that as its comrades went into government and became politicians that they would always give civil society a good hearing and they would be joined together in common purpose to work for the benefit of communities.

Well, this honeymoon didn’t last for very long. And what we found was that as politicians and government officials became entrenched in their positions that they adopted quite an antagonistic view of civil society. They saw civil society as rivals in terms of service delivery and they see civil society contesting the terrain that they believe belongs to them. In some instances, we’ve been able to develop a co-operative relationship depending on the personalities, but by and large, the relationship has been conflictual.

FAZILA FAROUK: Can you tell us a little bit about civil society itself not necessarily in relation to the state because I’m going to get to that. I mean, I actually want to interrogate in more detail the relationship between South African civil society and our state in the last 20 years ‘cos it has evolved and change a lot. But can we have a discussion about changes inside of civil society that you’ve observed over the years.

PIROSHAW CAMAY: All right. Yes.

I think that in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, we really had a very good relationship in terms of ensuring that there was a donor-civil society partnership and many donors both local as well as foreign were interested in developing a democratic country. To that end, civil society was widely supported and encouraged to take the kinds of positions it did.

Post ’94 donor attention turned to the new government - correctly so in many instances - and a lot of assistance went directly to government. And this ensured by and large that civil society was weakened.  So there was factor in terms of financial capacity.

A further factor was intellectual capacity -- that a number of intellectuals and leaders that worked within civil society drifted into government, either as politicians or as government officials and this created a leadership gap in civil society. And because there was a new democratic government, the leadership of the issues in society were taken over by that government. So to some extent civil society has been on the back foot and increasingly so because of the funding flows to civil society.

FAZILA FAROUK: Would you say that the civil society sector in South Africa - the broad non-profit sector - has grown in the last 20 years in number?

PIROSHAW CAMAY: No. I think it’s actually shrunk…that we would find that a number of organisations have disappeared of the scene because they have not been able to sustain themselves. Case in point is the DRC for example…


PIROSHAW CAMAY: The Development Resources Centre. That folded almost 15 years ago. More recently, 15 months ago IDASA, which was a formidable organisation with offices in very many other parts of Africa, also folded because of a lack of funding. So, I think that more and more organisations are finding that they can’t operate in this environment and are shutting down, which is a threat to civil society and a threat to our democracy because it means that community voices are no longer heard in the communities and in government circles.

The attitude of government as well as the attitude of portfolio committees to hear matters and hear appeals from civil society has also shrunk. So, for example, on the Information Bill only a few organisations have been able to travel to Cape Town and to petition the portfolio committee on that matter, whereas in the past you know there would be public demonstrations capturing the city and ensuring that the city became inoperable. That type of support just doesn’t exist in civil society anymore.

FAZILA FAROUK: Are you not seeing a reemergence of civil society, say in the last five years or so? For example, the huge campaigns we have, the anti E-tolling (campaign), the Right to Know (campaign). Civil society does seem to be much more in the public sphere in the past few years.

PIROSHAW CAMAY: Well I think that we need to interrogate those campaigns.

Firstly, if one examines those campaigns like the E-tolling, SECTION27, the education textbook crisis in Limpopo, and so on -- that there’s a recourse to the courts and there’s a fundamental shift - not in terms of building up community agitation and community interest on the issue - but a realiance on changing things through the court.

And I don’t think that we operated in that way in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We used the courts very suspiciously at one level because we did not have the confidence in the judiciary. And now in the recent past five years, the judiciary has also become fairly conservative in South Africa. So, I don’t know whether we can rely on the courts.

And many of these campaigns should actually be located with grassroots (communities). We have a housing crisis, we have an education crisis, we have a social welfare crisis. None of these are being addressed in the communities. They are being addressed in the courts of the land and I think that that puts civil society on the back foot. It ensures that civil society is not able to win its battles with the communities that it claims to support and work for.

FAZILA FAROUK: Can you tell me in more specific terms about the relationship between civil society and the state? Where it has been supportive in terms of its policies and legislations and where it hasn’t?

PIROSHAW CAMAY: I think before we can do that we need to hark back to what civil society was like in the pre-’94 era and may welfarest organisations complied with the legislation of the time. This divided civil society into different racial groups providing services only to racially based communities.

So for example, the Blind Association could only work with blind Indian groups if they were an Indian organisation, the so-called Coloureds (had) to determine an own organisation to provide services to the so-called Coloured community and similarly with the Africans and the Whites. So one of the things that we’ve had to do post-’94 is to bring these organisations together so they could provide services to the blind irrespective of race or geography.

And this is an important kind of dynamic that has played itself out in the welfarest organisations. Other organisations were advocacy organisations…

FAZILA FAROUK: And how is that transition going?

PIROSHAW CAMAY: Well I think by and large that transitions has been pretty positive in the sense that organisations have been able to come together and get grant funding from the government for the purposes for which they exist.

Other organisations, advocacy organisations, have found it a little bit more difficult primarily because, one, government has not supported advocacy against itself so the Lotto (National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund) will not provide money to an organisation which is advocating for a specific cause against government E-tolling, for example.

In other instances, foreign donors have been quite weary of their relationship being hampered by supporting civil society organisations in South Africa against their corporate, commercial, or national interests. So, for example, the British or the Irish or the Norwegians have not supported civil society in many instances.

I think it’s important to understand that governments will have a relationship with other governments.

That civil society in South Africa, which used to have quite a strengthened relationship with other civil society organisations elsewhere across the world that linkage has also been weakened. Further terrain that has been sort of invaded is the fact that international NGOs have come into South Africa and are capturing some of the space because of the funding that they’re able to receive from their organisations.

So, that’s much of the play within civil society itself. In terms of the relationships with government, this is a sort of continuum of relationships. So, in some departments and with some officials, it’s a very healthy, positive, cooperative relationship. In other areas like the land issue, it’s quite a confictual relationship. So it wanes between and on that continuum depending on the officials and depending on the issues.

FAZILA FAROUK: What can you tell me about the attitude of the post apartheid government to civil society - towards civil society?

PIROSHAW CAMAY: Well successive presidents in our country including Madiba, Thabo Mbeki, and even more latterly Jacob Zuma have always attacked civil society and they have gone on record as saying that civil society interferes with the functioning of government.

Now this is contested terrain and I think that politicians and government officials have to accept the reality that this is a contested terrain and therefore that civil society have the right to speak out loudly very often on issues that they believe government is going wrong on.

The attitude of government is to be able to shutdown civil society so that they can operate on their own without any interference, which is anathema to the idea of a democracy. Because as you’ve defined earlier, civil society exists independently of government. It exists for a public purpose, a public benefit. This can’t be taken away in a democracy and we can’t have a bipolar situation where government and corporates exist on their own. A third force is the issue of a sector that propagates the relationships and the human rights in this tripartite structure.

FAZILA FAROUK: What advice would you have for those who work with civil society in terms of strengthening the sector? How can people help?

PIROSHAW CAMAY: Well I think both international donors, corporates in South Africa, government officials that are involved in agencies like the NDA (National Development Agency) and the Lotto as well as officials making decisions about the role civil society plays in this democracy of ours have to play a supportive role.

Because without that support, without that understanding of what civil society does to deepen and strengthen our democracy we will weaken civil society. If we weaken civil society the space opens up for an establishment of a dictatorship. And we have seen this in many parts of the world. We’ve seen this in Asia; we’ve seen it in Latin America, in other parts of Africa.

So, it’s a danger to our democracy and we need to protect our democracy. Having fought for it so hard over 350 odd years we now need to enshrine that this democracy is protected. So that’s the one role I see for organisations.

The other is to ensure support for the kinds of issues that civil society are bringing forth. In many instances civil society are saying let’s protect the girl child, let’s protect the women in our society, let’s protect the vulnerable people like the aged. And very little protection is extended to them by the state so this is perforce a role that civil society has to adopt and accept and ensure that these vulnerable groups in our societies are protected.

FAZILA FAROUK: Piroshaw Camay thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

PIROSHAW CAMAY: Thank you for inviting me.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. And remember, if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at

Should you wish to repost this SACSIS video, air this podcast or republish this transcript please acknowledge The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license.

For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS video is released, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page      0 comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!