Even in the euphoric dawn of democracy in 1994 fears of the lack of a credible opposition that could challenge the ANC had some questioning just how long our democracy would survive in its present form.
The demise of the Congress of the People, the inner wrangling of the Inkatha Freedom Party, the morphing of the Independent Democrats into the Democratic Alliance, and the United Democratic Movement, which is now a mere blip on the political radar, dashed hopes that a credible opposition with mass-based support will help to hold the ruling ANC to account.
But maybe it’s not a political party that will be taking on the ruling ANC.
Ask political analysts and they’ll tell you that, for a sustainable democracy, you need a strong civil society. And the good news is that South Africa’s civil society is gaining momentum.
The year 2010 saw the ANC’s hegemony on knowing what is right for South Africa being seriously challenged for the first time by one of its own — its alliance partner, Cosatu.
The ANC’s reaction to a civil society conference hosted in October in Ekurhuleni by Cosatu, alongside 56 civil society organisations, including Section27, the Alternative Information Development Centre and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), shocked many.
‘Ganging up against ANC leadership’
Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesperson, said at the time: “If you have a friend and that friend goes out and finds a bloc that mobilises against you, how would you feel? We’re speaking from the heart here. Our pain comes from this ganging up against the ANC leadership.”
But those in the ANC weren’t just heartbroken, they were angry. Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general, was more direct.
He called the conference “oppositional” and said it threatened the ANC with an MDC-type breakaway party — referring to Zimbabwe’s embattled Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, which started out as an alliance between workers and civil society.
Cosatu said the ruling party’s reaction took it by surprise. But the fallout was clear — this gathering hit a nerve beyond anything the Democratic Alliance or Cope could ever muster.
Traditionally, civil society in South Africa has seen itself as vibrant and dynamic, but hardly influential.
“Civil society has, for all its vigour, mounted relatively few effective challenges to government policy since 1994 and has often been reduced to making suggestions which government decision-makers are free to ignore,” wrote Steven Friedman and Eusebius McKaiser in a 2010 research paper on South Africa’s civil society commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
An exception, they said, was the campaign by the TAC to force the government to provide free antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive people.
But in 2010 social movements substantially changed the landscape of civil society for the foreseeable future.
The controversial Protection of Information Bill and plans to form a media tribunal led to the formation of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution and the Right2Know campaign, and movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo made headline news for their activism in tackling housing issues.
And the government’s handling of the registration of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants saw the rise of human rights organisations such as Cape Town’s People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty.
The proposed media restrictions also drew international attention, with the United States ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, publicly questioning the media laws proposed by the ANC.
President Jacob Zuma also had to answer uncomfortable questions about the proposed tribunal during a European Union-South Africa summit in Belgium last year.
While opposition in formal political structures poses no real threat to the ANC’s electoral domination, the October conference showed that opposition through civil society could be the opposition the ANC has always feared would come.
According to Vuyesika Dubula, the TAC general secretary, the conference saw, for the first time, Cosatu, with other organisations, stand up to the ANC in a direct and critical manner.
“The conference has strengthened relations between us and Cosatu,” Dubula said this week. “Cosatu has now, for the first time, after the public service strike, seen how the ANC can disappoint them and this left a mark.”
Dubula said that in previous years the TAC had approached Cosatu to join it in civil disobedience campaigns, but Cosatu had refused.
“They had to sit down as national office bearers about it and decided they can’t do that [participate in such campaigns] because they cannot go against their own government.”
Dubula said that the civil society formation, which will campaign for better access to healthcare and education, would convene provincial conferences with the same organisations, where local priorities would be discussed.
Local government elections
The local government elections this year will be a litmus test for this new formation.
Cosatu will be campaigning for the re-election of the ANC at local level but at the same time for better service delivery, which will implicitly criticise the ANC’s delivery record.
But Patrick Craven, Cosatu spokesperson, said he saw no contradiction in this. “The plans to participate as part of the civil society formation will proceed. Cosatu made a decision about that.
“This will not affect the Cosatu election campaign that was launched in December and will be kicking into gear soon.
“We are not worried about the ANC because we believe this process is no threat to the ANC — it augments the ANC’s campaign for a better life,” Craven said.
Friedman and McKaiser, in their research, found that civil society was not steeped in grassroots politics. But Cosatu’s recent emergence as part of the larger civil society formation could change that.
“Cosatu has finally realised that for the trade unions to be close to the ANC has not brought enough benefits for the working class,” according to Friedman.
Cosatu’s strength, he said, was in organising people in the workplace but the new alliance had to work at representing the poor and building up grassroots support.
Civil society organisations themselves, however, need to ensure that their internal politics do not hamper their effectiveness.
Loren Landau, the director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, said: “Civil society cripples its own effectiveness by internal politics that can be as political as in political parties.
“There are fights about who has the right to speak for the poor and disadvantaged, for instance. People accuse one another of selling out because they cooperate with authorities and people undermine one another to maintain access to funding or influence.”
But, as the ANC did during the apartheid years, civil society could unify behind a common goal and make 2011 the year of civil society opposition.