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Africa needs civil society

Cooperation and collaboration were key buzzwords last week when representatives from Africa’s civil society sector and the Pan African Parliament (PAP) met in Midrand.

Top of the agenda was the state of the continent’s integration process and increased citizen participation in policymaking; issues both parties agree are needed to fast-track Africa’s development.

Meeting at a dialogue hosted by the Southern Africa Trust and Trust Africa in Midrand, the representatives sought to address the challenge of governments’ mistrust of civil society organisations and to bring together civil society movements to avoid duplication of effort.

Civil society representatives came out strongly, highlighting crucial impediments stalling development in Africa, which revolved around failure by governments and development consortiums to forge working relationships with the sector.

Limited opportunity for civic engagement in the policy-making process, the lack of financial resources and capacity within both the civic movement and the PAP were reported to be among the problems. Stronger relationships with organisations such as the PAP, sector representatives said, would help to promote an understanding of what civil society movements do.

PAP’s women’s caucus representative, Anab Abdulkadir, said integration of women within African societies and children’s rights were of major concern. Though policies in defence of women’s rights existed in every government, she said women were still treated like outsiders in their own communities and children continue to be marginalised.

Urging the civil society sector to promote implementation, she said: “If the policies are not implemented, when will they be, who will [implement them]? — and I bet it won’t be a man who will implement these policies but a woman.”

PAP regional caucus chairperson for SADC, Marwick Khumalo, believes that governments which refuse to cancel their sovereign status impede successful integration in the region.

Making special reference to South Africa for its stance on the rule of study and work permits Khumalo said: “In order to improve free movement and facilitate effective free trade relations in the region we need to do away with laws that require students from the region to apply for study permits and skilled people to apply for work permits every year.”

He agreed with Abdulkadir that civil society should follow the correct channels in engaging the PAP, pointing out that the African Union’s economic and social committee was the ideal place to air their views.

Khumalo lamented that there is currently no formal working relationship between the two entities, especially in light of the AU resolution that all its organs and civil society should improve their working relationships.

Said Khumalo: “We are the voice for the people of Africa and we are open to working with civil society. We are aware that there are a lot of these organisations and that some are not even registered, so we urge them to register themselves so that they could have full rights to participation.”

Civil society representatives were complimentary about the dialogues and discussions, which had managed to “cultivate a way forward” in dealing with issues affecting the continent.

Nadia Ahmadou from the Institute for Security Studies said the discussions were helpful as they created engagement between civil society and the PAP.

“The more we interact with the PAP the more we get a chance to work together towards the future. I think we can say that there’s a difference that these sessions are making; however, it does not help us if we attend such conferences and forget about the things we discussed,” said Ahmadou.

There should be more consultative meetings like this in future, she said. “This conference was not about voicing grievance but to look into the future. The PAP is showing commitment to the development of the continent and I think that is very promising.”

Systems have been in place for some time now, said Bhekinkosi Moyo of Trust Africa, but the only thing that is missing is implementation. Moyo said strong links needed to be cultivated between the PAP and civil society. The formation of PAP committees to look into different issues such as free trade, health and gender in the continent could also help in achieving common goals between them and civil society, he said.

“We need to agree on common values and act more — there are capacity issues involved and if those are not taken seriously both the PAP and civil society could suffer. Therefore collaboration is key,” said Moyo.

The facts
Historically, in almost all African countries, people’s movements, faith-based formations and various constellations of civil society have supported political liberation extensively. There was a close link between civil society and political society, and people-based power was recognised as a major driving force in nation building. But this has changed.

In recent times, most governments appear to have developed a dislike for civil society organisations. The sector is perceived to be a base for state opposition and in response, some countries have adopted laws to discourage civil society processes. In countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe there are laws which regulate the amount of funding local civil society movements can receive from international funders. In these countries the government has a direct influence on how civil society operates.

However, there are African countries that recognise the impact of civil society in effecting change and promoting citizen participation in decision-making. These include Mali and South Africa.

Based on research conducted in the early 2000s, the civil society sector globally appoints more than 35-million people across 35 countries. It is the seventh-biggest economy in the world with profits amounting to $1.3-trillion.

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