Editorial: Civil groups can socialise state into action

Nelson Mandela, sporting TAC's trademark 'HIV positive' tshirt, visits the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town on December 2 2002.

Nelson Mandela, sporting TAC's trademark 'HIV positive' tshirt, visits the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town on December 2 2002.

A few years ago, South African Communist Party leader Jeremy Cronin published a piece in the party’s organ in which he expressed hostility towards civil society and the activist organisations that sue the government to get things done. He seemed to see civil society’s work as a kind of neoliberal assault on the people’s democracy, suggesting instead that the state itself be “socialised”.

This view is in line with the state’s tendency to absorb the functions of many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society groups, as it did in the years immediately after 1994, when much NGO funding switched to the government. That was the first phase of a process Cronin would probably endorse, but many such groups survived and went on to fight the government by means of the law – and, sometimes, to take the side of the government against private interests such as Big Pharma.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) did both, as well as mobilise very visible popular support.
The case it fought alongside the state led to a drop in the cost of medicines (particularly HIV and Aids medication). The cases it fought against the government ended the Aids denialism of the Thabo Mbeki years and galvanised a proper treatment programme for South Africans living with HIV and Aids. Nelson Mandela supported the TAC: he wore the TAC’s trademark “HIV-positive” T-shirt when he visited TAC leader Zackie Achmat, who was then refusing HIV treatment until it was available to all citizens.

If the TAC had not fought that battle, who would? What if the state is insufficiently “socialised” to deal with such crises?

Civil society is important to the functioning of our democracy: sometimes the state has to be given a hard push to do its duty, even its constitutional duty.

Yet, as we report this week, without new funding the TAC will close. Many other civil society organisations have already died, a prominent example being the highly respected Institute for Democracy in Africa.

We are now in the second phase of the demobilisation of civil society, caused by the drying up of funding. It would be tragic if the TAC faded away: it is a shining example of people’s power in action.

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