The state of civil society in South Africa
Professor Jakes Gerwel, founding board member of Idasa and Chairperson of the board since August 1995 until his recent resignation, reflects on the role of civil society in South Africa.
The vibrancy of South African civil society reached its peak during the time of the mass democracy movement. One reason why democratic resistance survived and grew in spite of the steady intensification of state oppression is to be found in the civil society location of that resistance. The democratic movement, particularly in the eighties, went much broader and deeper than formal political organisations that could be isolated, suppressed and crushed.
The democratic movement manifested itself in bodies ragging from civic organisations, professional bodies, movement of women, youth and students, religious organisations, formations of traditional leaders, trade unions, traders associations, cultural and sporting bodies, non-governmental organisation and a range of other.
Each of these bodies had an autonomous, or semi-autonomous, primary sphere of operation. They were loosely organised yet highly effectively, bound together by a common social and political objective: the resistance to the continued influence and control of racial rule in their spheres of operation. This was a period of quite brutal and cruel state of repression, but in retrospect one remembers it as much for the enormous social energy released and harnessed through the broad democratic movement. The claim that people shall govern was caught up and demonstrated in this broad-based movement of people’s organisations.
There was a general understanding that for a variety of reasons – topographical, military and strategic – the capturing of geographical liberated zones as in the liberation struggles of some neighbouring countries was unlikely here. Equally potent in the anti-apartheid struggle, though, was the capturing of what one might call liberated social spaces. The anti-government thrust was the major source of energy of civil society in the period of high bloom.
What now in changed political and social conditions? What is the state of civil society post-democratic change?
The conceptual challenge for the liberation movement in government is to identify, define and demarcate those areas of social life of its citizens that are largely outside its sphere of responsibility and direct control, without thereby neglecting its historic obligation to fundamentally transform society
Conversely, the citizens have to identify, define and claim those areas where they take primary responsibility, being partners, though often critical partners – with government in the transformation that our history so obviously and undeniably demands.
Neither government nor non-governmental agencies have fully succeeded in making those determinations and redefining their respective roles and relationships in the changed circumstances
I would define as organs of civil society those areas of social life not primarily or directly connected with the advancement of political or economic interests. What come to mind are sectors like education, religion, culture, sport, community development and other expressions of community life.
With reference to these sectors, one has to conclude that the role played by civil society has diminished significantly since democratic change. One is struck by, for example, the relative silence of the churches and religion, or the universities in the large national debates.
Our society faces deep social problems like crime, corruption, women and child abuse, the behavioural aspects and causes of HIV/AIDS, a seemingly spiralling disrespect for life and others and
It is in this respect that organs of civil society, as more narrowly defined, have a major role to play. It is at this level that the so-called ordinary citizen can make the most direct impact on changing the conditions of his or her community life.
Organs of civil society can be agencies for recapturing the spirit of human solidarity and for inculcating and establishing conversations of civility in our societal conduct.