The rise of civil society in South Africa

Covid-19 has removed the veil on real poverty in South Africa, showing us all what we have normalised: rampant unemployment and extreme poverty. It was always there; the immediate coronavirus crisis has just reminded us of it.

In the world right now, civil society is being called on more and we need to collaborate and connect. Civil society in the past three decades in South Africa has become less influential. Before Covid-19 were we really heard? Were we really working together? In the past six weeks during lockdown, however, I have seen organisations come together to alleviate human suffering in a similar way to how they fought against apartheid.

The work happening on the ground in South Africa has been driven by nongovernmental organisations, the challenge remains in working together with the government. The recent call by the government to stop civil society distributing food came as a shock.

My one question is this – why does it take a pandemic to get us to work together? My other questions are what happens after this crisis? How do we continue supporting each other? How do we continue with the work that we do?

A beacon of hope at this devastating time has been our youth. Activate, a youth network with more than  4 500 “activators” who have gone through leadership training programmes, has watched these young people go out into their communities and be part of the solution, not the problem. Bear in mind these are the same people who are watching their promises of a future slip away once again, as the economy is crushed.


I live in awe at how many young people in South Africa have asked: “What can we do?” in response to this virus. Young people are starting soup kitchens, gathering and distributing food parcels, training their elders in physical distancing; helping with screening; being a source of information on WhatsApp groups by translating Covid-19 information into their own languages so everyone can understand; they are out there on the frontlines of this battle against an invisible enemy. They didn’t even wait to be deployed, they just went out there and started creating change. That is what it is all about. 

The challenges facing civil society are great. Extraordinary leadership will be required in the months going forward by nongovernmental organisations. It is time for people to come together with the youth and communities across the divide and ensure that the goodwill and ubuntu that has arisen, will continue to rise and spread, so we can build the South Africa we truly want for everyone. 

Good can come out of this crisis if we continue doing good.

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Siphelele Chirwa
Siphelele Chirwa is chief executive of ACTIVATE! Change Drivers

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