Comment and Analysis

Yes, NGOs seek publicity and recourse to law

Bonita Meyersfeld

Several government and social leaders have recently accused civil society organisations of playing foul, writes Bonita Meyersfeld.

The media gives all players in a democracy a way of participating in a national dialogue. (David Harrison, M&G)

In the Daily Maverick, the online newspaper, a government official argued that his department had "been taken to court to further the interests of civil society groups" and that non-governmental organisations were using high-profile cases "for fund­raising".

This is part of an ongoing discourse that depicts civil society as political, neoliberal, advancing an alternative agenda and wasting time and money in unnecessary litigation for the sake of publicity.

My response: guilty as charged. Almost.

In many respects, civil society is being political. Civil society is challenging the government to comply with its legal obligations in a constitutional democracy. This brings us inevitably on to a political playing field. It is fallacious to suggest that this work is apolitical. We are challenging political agents.

Civil society, which is far from homogenous and often beset by internal disagreement, is not advancing a political party agenda. However, it is filling the gap that a range of opposition parties usually fill in a democratic state. It is holding up the proverbial mirror to reflect the action and inaction of the ruling party.

Is civil society neoliberal? If neoliberal means insisting that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled, as required of the government by the Constitution, then, yes, I would say I am neoliberal, liberal or any other label that represents the aspirations of human rights, equality and the rule of law.

And, yes, there is an agenda: ensuring that the majority of the voiceless in South Africa have a voice.

Denying problems
As for the allegation that civil society is overly litigious, the answer is yes: increasingly civil society is finding that government officials either deny problems or promise to address them and fail to deliver. We attempt alternatives before we consider litigation and, more often than not, the clients we represent ask us to litigate. And, sadly, it is often only when court proceedings are instituted and papers are served that we see a response from the government.

What about publicity? The media is one of the greatest gifts to social justice. Through it all entities, including the government, can speak. The media transmits ideas, thoughts, debate and creates an understanding of them. So, if the allegation is that I am a neoliberal, litigious, political, publicity-seeking dissident, then I say guilty as charged.

I cannot speak on behalf of all civil society, but from my point of view I would love to be wrong. I would like nothing more than to find that girls are not being raped by their teachers at school, abused women and girls are not being victimised by the criminal justice system, innocent people are not spending several years in jail awaiting trial and hospitals are equipped with the tools they need to provide healthcare.

I would like to see that the government is not putting unemployed people in accommodation that has no partitions, no privacy, no running water, no sanitation, no safety, no certainty and lock-out times; that children in these buildings are not emulating their parents' sexual activities because there is no privacy or dignity in the place where they live.

I would like nothing more than to find that townships with a population of more than one million people have more than one police station; that a person earning R2 000 a month can rent decent accommodation in the inner city for less than R1 500; that miners are not shot when they challenge dire poverty; that labour is not cheap and maternal mortality is not on the rise.

I would like nothing more than to find that, since 1994, white people are not richer and black people are not poorer than they have ever been.

But let me be clear: there is no country in the world where I would rather be so accused. This is an unsettling, disquieting time in post-apartheid history, but it is happening in a democratic state. The fight is taking place in Parliament, the courts and the media. Their independence is guaranteed by our Constitution precisely for this purpose. I am not disputing the seriousness of South Africa's problems, but alongside the pain we acknowledge the pride.

I often find myself sitting across the table from government officials, arguing about a particular matter. The most interesting and inevitable conclusion is that we both have the same mandate, we both have the same social project, we both have the same hope. And of this I am most certainly guilty.

Bonita Meyersfeld is the director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and an associate professor at the law school of the University of the Witwatersrand

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