Civil society and democracy in South Africa: The grassroots dimension of a changing sector
Introduction The advent of democracy has provided new opportunities but also significant challenges to South African civil society. On the one hand, the new Constitution, which is considered one of the most progressive in the world, has opened up significant space for individual and collective activism. On the other hand, the establishment of a democratically elected government has de facto forced many organizations to revise their overall objectives. This process also affected the modus operandi of most civil society organizations working on democracy issues: while the struggle against apartheid consisted of direct forms of collective activism, ranging from defiance campaigns to mass rallies, the consolidation of democracy has required organizations to develop new instruments to impact public policy. A similar shift has also affected civil society organizations operating in the social field. During apartheid, these groups were directly concerned with the provision of services to marginalized communities, as the latter were neglected by government. Yet, after the transition to democracy, the new government legitimately reasserted its right and obligation to provide services to all South Africans, especially the formerly disenfranchised majority, in order to redress past injustices. Besides this generalized ‘identity’ crisis, civil society organizations also faced a brain drain, since many leaders went to occupy positions in government or in the private sector, which was further exacerbated by a significant shortage of funds, as international donors gradually moved away from civil society aid to invest more directly in government policies. While this process delivered an incentive to some organizations to acquire new skills and further professionalize their internal structure, it nevertheless marginalized many smaller associations and groups, which lacked the resources to keep pace with the changing environment. Political rhetoric also shifted. After downgrading its social plan for reconstruction and development in the mid-1990s, the South African government became increasingly wary of civil society’s criticisms. Some NGOs and pressure groups critical of government were discredited as unaccountable to the citizens and accused of being controlled by foreign powers. At the same time, the unmet
expectations of many poor South Africans and the escalating socioeconomic crisis (exacerbated by the spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic) re-energized grassroots activism, fuelling frictions between communities and local government. This chapter traces the evolution of democracy in South Africa and its impact on civil society by focusing on some key factors and major dynamics. First, it discusses the widening gap between citizens and government, epitomized by the socioeconomic crisis and the lack of service delivery in most disadvantaged communities. Then it analyses how civil society has changed since the advent of democracy by focusing on its diversified relationships with government, especially at the grassroots level. Finally, the chapter explores the hitherto uncharted territory of community-based organizations by analysing how the latter have contributed towards sustaining the anti-apartheid struggle and how they have evolved in recent years.