Civil society faces a double identity crisis, built on a double silence. The first silence surrounds President Cyril Ramaphosa; the second involves racial justice. These twin silences threaten to turn civil society’s identity crisis into a credibility crisis. South Africa needs a new kind of civil society institution. One which avoids factional ANC politics, holds the state accountable and prioritises racial inequity.
Let me clarify the object of my worry. My misgivings are not with service delivery NGOs like Gift of the Givers, or issue-specific organisations like Equal Education. I am not questioning the excellent work of institutions like Sonke Gender Justice or challenging social movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo, who do lofty — and often lonely — work. Civil society is vast and polylithic.
Rather, I am interested in those institutions which purport to abhor corruption and advance accountability, especially through litigation. Organisations like the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac), Corruption Watch, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), the Helen Suzman Foundation and Freedom Under Law. Let’s call them “accountability NGOs”.
Furthermore, I am concerned with other institutions, like AfriForum and the Institute of Race Relations, whose work often involves protecting white interests. Let’s call them “minority-interest NGOs”.
Since Ramaphosa’s rise to power, accountability NGOs have played a dangerous game of ANC-factional calculus, encouraging a sense of impunity in the Union Buildings. The Phala Phala saga has now exposed the naivety of this gamble.
Now, these NGOs have a choice: do they continue to mollycoddle the president, or do they find their teeth, even at this late stage?
So far, their response to Phala Phala has been underwhelming. In a recent interview on SABC News about the scandal, representatives of Casac, Outa and Corruption Watch were mild in their condemnation of the president. When pressed, Casac and Corruption Watch could only muster half-hearted pleas for “answers”, before deflecting to the “broader” fight against corruption. The Outa representative all but defended Ramaphosa.
The public deserves more. It should not have taken Arthur Fraser to expose Phala Phala. And weak requests for “answers” won’t cut it, either. What if the president has no answers to give? What about the things he has already admitted? And, just how long should the nation wait for these answers? Instead of just “answers”, shouldn’t accountability NGOs want accountability?
To be clear, I am not calling for accountability NGOs to be weaker on Ramaphosa’s opponents, whose litany of misdeeds are as long as the ocean is deep; I am calling for them to be stronger on Ramaphosa and his allies. I spoke out vehemently against the administration of former president Jacob Zuma and have published screeds on the betrayals of state capture since 2014.
But I, for one, am growing wary of a culture of selective outrage which insulates the president — and thereby the ANC — from proper scrutiny.
Accountability is no finite resource. Accountability for one ANC faction need not detract from the investigation of another. South Africa deserves universal political accountability, because all factions of the ANC agree on one thing: preserving ANC power.
Doubtless, accountability NGOs do — and have done — vital work. In the Zuma era, these organisations defended democracy under pain of state intimidation. I do not seek to undermine or impugn this work. But they have gone easy on Ramaphosa for nearly five years now. And this opens these institutions to legitimate suspicions of hypocrisy, if not downright bias.
Minority-interest NGOs also dominate the non-governmental landscape. One example is AfriForum, with its bizarre fixation on protecting apartheid symbols under the thin guise of “free speech”. Another is the Institute of Race Relations, whose research agenda — revolving on denying racism’s importance — should confound even the staunchest conspiracy theorist.
AfriForum’s agenda ultimately turns on creating a state within a state, complete with institutions of private prosecution and even border policing. Yet none in civil society — with the laudable exception of the Nelson Mandela Foundation — dare challenge AfriForum’s murky aims. Au contraire, some have allied with AfriForum in courts, even as they claim to praise “democracy”.
This exposes a central weakness in non-governmental advocacy today. There is a civil society organisation for every problem, except racial injustice.
Take the recent episode at Stellenbosch University. This affair exposed a gaping lack of credible anti-racism institutions, outside the formal party political space, on which racism’s victims can rely.
Is “accountability” only for ANC politicians? What about accountability for racism — institutional and interpersonal? Isn’t that key to the “constitutional project”, to which many NGOs pledge fealty? Why have we, as a country, not yet built accountability institutions which hold racism to account?
Scholars like Tshepo Madlingozi have long critiqued civil society’s “neoapartheid-like” character. They have questioned the agendas, the racial composition, and the discourse, of civil society institutions. But this critique fell on deaf ears in the Zuma years, because presidential accountability loomed so large. Dismissing this criticism was a mistake.
In my previous column, I asked: what comes after the ANC? One answer is that South Africa needs new accountability institutions, capable of checking state power while demanding racial justice.
Do we need a black AfriForum? The question may be too crude. I do not mean that AfriForum’s motives should be mimicked. But South Africa needs real anti-racism institutions which transcend the mild and meaningless call for “social cohesion”. Relying solely on the state, or even political parties, for this work is foolhardy.
Funding is one barrier to this aim. The revolving door between big politics, big capital and big NGOs, cannot be ignored. And, in the current economic climate, NGOs must often kiss frogs to keep the lights on. How could new accountability institutions secure funding, without bowing to donor pressure on questions of racial justice and political accountability?
To build a new society, we need a new state. But we also require private institutions, armed with a deeper conception of accountability. If we fail to imagine such institutions into being, then we will be constantly stuck between the wall of corruption and the sword of racism.
Dr Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.