By Dale T McKinley

There can be no doubt that since 1994 progressive civil society organisations (CSOs) in South Africa, despite serious challenges alongside an often hostile government and corporate sector, have achieved a great deal.

A combination of localised community-based organisations, broader sectoral and/or issue-based social movements, progressive NGOs, some unions as well as variety of other immigrant, religious, youth, LGBTI (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual/intersex) and women’s groups have all contributed to, among others:

  • The maintenance of a lively democratic culture;
  • The defence and advancement of crucial human and constitutional rights;
  • Confronting the abuse of political and economic power; and
  • Struggling for practical alternatives to the societal status quo.

We must, rightfully, recognise and celebrate these achievements. However, if there has been one glaring strategic weakness it is the general absence of broad-based civil society coalitions. This would involve a wide range of CSOs working together for a clearly identified common purpose to shift dominant power relations in our society and thus also, the structure and exercise of power.

The genesis of this strategic weakness can be traced back to how South African progressive civil society developed from the late 1980s onwards. During this early transitional period, most of these CSOs were organised around distinct political and organisational lines, most often tied to strands within the broad liberation movement.

When the ANC returned home as the dominant liberation organisation from 1990, it encouraged demobilisation and pulling in most of those CSOs into its own organisational structures and or allied coalitions. An example of this is the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco).

This meant that after April 1994, many activists who had previously made up a fairly broad-based progressive civil society were absorbed into the new state.

Soon, the ANC and the state it now controlled set-up national structures to give institutional form to its corporatist commitments.

The National Economic, Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) was formed where, alongside its labour and corporate capital components, civil society was represented by a development chamber, which consisted of chosen CSOs.

Almost simultaneously, legislation such as the Non-Profit Act of 1997 was passed and institutions set up like the Directorate of Non-Profit Organisations and the National Development Agency. This was done to further institutionalise, manage and support civil society.

Funding crisis

This effective sanitising of civil society was further reinforced by the post-1994 crisis of funding, which confronted most independent community organisations and progressive NGOs that were largely dependent on donor funding.

Both domestic and foreign donor funding took a radical turn away from previous commitments to independent grassroots mobilisation towards state-directed developmental programmes and state-sponsored social welfare partnerships with approved civil society organisations.

This resulted in a development agenda increasingly driven by state and private-sector donor funding, and the slow death of the vast majority of independent civil society organisations.

The long-term effect of this was a serious loss of both civil society space and place for any sustained and collective macro-systemic engagement and contestation of the state at the institutional and policy levels.

Not surprisingly, what then arose from the mid to late 1990s were a new set of sectorally focused, issue-based CSOs whose strategic purpose was largely oriented towards demanding and/or filling respective governance and delivery gaps.

Possibilities for broader coalition-building and action were further undermined by the often virulently hostile response of the state (alongside the ANC itself) to the largely defensive democratic thrust and public activities of these new set of progressive CSOs.

In a classic example of divide-and-rule tactics, civil society was labelled (and treated) as either good or bad, depending on its approach and relationship to the ANC-led state and engagement with the dominant developmental model.

While significant aspects of this mid-transition battle still exist, the last few years have borne out how such tactics can come back to bite the instigator; in the process, providing the perfect recipe for incubating the unprecedented levels of political opportunism, demagoguery, greed and corruption that are now so prevalent within both the government and corporate arenas.

Conjoined to the virtual explosion of independent worker and community protests, alongside the general crisis-ridden nature of South Africa’s political economy, there now exists new spaces and places for progressive civil society to reclaim a unity of strategic purpose and action.

As South Africa’s own history has shown, the best vehicle for doing so, are broad coalitions. This can allow organisational linkages to be made, tactical commonalities to be found and most crucially, the realisation of a collective approach to engaging and challenging skewed power relations and shifting the structure and exercise of power.

After all, is it not the core, longer-term mission of such CSOs to change society, not just its component parts?

Effective and sustained coalitions demand the charting of a new strategic path of civil society activism and collective solidarity. Such a path can only be realised with the confident assertion of a dynamic, organic independence which moves beyond the historical lacuna of party politics and prescribed civil society niches, and is rooted in practical grassroots struggles of the majority.

Further, that encompasses a local, national and international character which engages and targets both the state and capital, and which seeks to effect a broader societal change of consciousness.

There are encouraging signs that such coalitions are beginning to emerge although they remain in their strategic infancy, having yet to fully break through long-standing organisational divisions, regionalism, narrow struggle identities, ideological differences and widely varying relationships with institutionalised political and economic power.

An incipient example is the relatively young Right2Know Campaign which has practically shown that it is possible to bring together both the individual and collective strengths of different activists and organisations in a strategic partnership that cuts across a narrow issue base and links various civil society organisational forms and struggle content.

Strategic coalition-building can provide much-needed impetus for creating a formidable collection of progressive forces in struggle and forging a practical commonality for linked activism. Failure on this front will condemn progressive civil society to a future of self-marginalisation and constructed isolation.

This article was first published on the South African Civil Society Information Service website.