/ 20 June 2005

Civil society can be a powerful force for change

South Africa’s richly plural civil society was forged in the struggle for liberation, but over the past five years its impact on policy and legislation has become less effective than it should be.

The African National Congress has made the shift from liberation movement to governing party, but civil society has not quite figured out how to move beyond its old, oppositional role.

During the 1990s organisations from human rights bodies and welfare groups to churches enjoyed an unprecedented level of access to government structures and to ministers, exchanging views and providing advice on the important issues. It was a heady period, and organisations revelled in their new role as partners in the reconstruction of our society.

That changed after 1999, as the government began more firmly to grasp the reins of policy and legis- lation. This was a shock to many activists, particularly those whose leadership had close relationships with former comrades.

Ministers changed and brought in new advisers, adopted new think-tank groups. Many civil society players, ousted from positions of power, have not been able to adjust to their new roles. This has often resulted in bitter critiques by civil society of government policy.

Civil society has also battled to define its relationship to a government that is exceptionally robust and aggressive in defence of its policies, particularly those, like the growth, employment and redistribution strategy, that have an impact on socio-economic rights.

Many mistakenly see the government as the new enemy and claim that the government has betrayed the cause of the poor.

The government too has made the terrain more difficult. Only the better resourced organisations can make inputs on policy and legislation. Only they can make submissions to what many regard as a complex parliamentary committee system.

While the work of civil society is admirable in this regard, ordinary people often do not have their voices heard.

Poverty and inequality constitute the biggest threats to our democracy and yet they do not receive the attention they deserve from civil society.

Although many NGOs speak on behalf of the poor, the government at national level often has no real understanding of the circumstances in which people live.

Whose voice is heard? Those who live and experience poverty or those who intellectualise on poverty eradication or reduction strategies? Have those who live in poverty been asked the right questions on how to improve their chances of surviving it?

This raises questions of credibility for civil society. What attempt do we make to speak, not on behalf of the poor or for them, but rather to facilitate their opportunities to speak to power on the issues that affect their lives?

Why has civil society not joined in larger numbers and more loudly the call by the Coalition on the Basic Income Grant (BIG) to make available a basic income grant to citizens? The government itself has had to acknowledge that social pensions are one way of ameliorating the effects of poverty. If civil society joined forces, it could create a force to break the current logjam on the BIG.

Civil society creates legitimacy for itself when it creates the opportunity for the poor to have a voice, a real one that is heard in policy–making. Then it can justifiably hold the government accountable in accordance with the aims, objectives and values of the Constitution.

Another major factor confronting civil society is its relationship with donors. Many civil society organisations have adapted to donors’ needs and are no longer the vibrant force for change that they once were.

The donor world is highly competitive, and only the more sophisticated survive. In such an environment, many community based organisations struggle. They fail in the scramble for funds on technicalities and poor presentation. This has created an imbalance in our society as many deserving organisations find it difficult to carry on their work even though the cause they serve is hugely important.

Governments around the world are constrained by the negative aspects of globalisation and the inequality of the international economic order.

In these circumstances, it is crucial that the voices of civil society are heard, in order to create the space in which the government can hear the voices of the marginalised, and to take action.

People like Bono and Bob Geldof have shamed the global powers into putting Africa back on the agenda, and we should take heart from that.

A vibrant civil society, vocal in its outrage against poverty and inequality, can be a constructive advocate for social justice.

The government of South Africa is not our enemy; poverty and inequality and our failure to transform are.

Yasmin Sooka is on the board of the Black Sash, which this month celebrated its 50th year of existence