Analysis: Quo Vadis, civil society?

By IAfrica
In South Africa
Aug 17th, 2014
0 Comments
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In 2007, an American environmentalist by the name of Paul Hawken published an influential and best-selling anatomy of social justice movements across the world. Titled Blessed Unrest but subtitled How the Largest Movement in the World came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, Hawken’s book became a New York Times bestseller.

The crux of Hawken’s argument is that today’s struggles for social justice had their singular, humble but hugely important beginnings in the anti-slavery movement that started in England in the 1780s (Adam Hochschild’s history of this campaign, Bury the Chains, remains the most wonderful history of this movement). He argues that since that time citizen-driven campaigns – motivated solely by public interest – have exploded into the form of millions of NGOs, CBOs, co-operatives and other organisations.

Collectively they have become what we loosely term ‘civil society’.

I would argue that these organisations have only one competitor in their reach across the globe: bottles of Coca-Cola. They refresh the parts of humanity that governments fail to reach. They are found in almost every recess of geography and personality of the increasingly marginalised majority of the earth’s inhabitants.

Civil society has assumed many shapes, forms and faiths. In different languages and with different actions it holds out against brutal ‘modernity’. In an amoral governmental and corporate order it still professes a commitment to social justice and human rights.

Part of this battalion’s strength is that its members have a freedom of movement and action, a capacity to innovate. This comes from the fact that most of them are without a slavish subscription to either of the last centuries’ two great ideologies, capitalism or ‘Stalinism’. They campaign against the inequities of both. But theirs is a pragmatic utopianism, a conviction that public interest is more important than private gain, and that human rights are still possible.

That citizen action is just.

Hawken claims that this movement has “no orthodoxy or unifying ideology; no single charismatic leader… is supple enough to coalesce easily into larger networks to achieve their goals”. He claims, optimistically, that it might be bringing about the “single most profound transformation of human society”.

So, has it changed the world?

If we are to look around us in South Africa, Hawken’s optimistic thesis appears to contain a lot of truth. Social movements, NGOs, CBOs – all free from the constraints of party whips – are breaking out all over the place.

Some have existed for decades. Organisations like the Black Sash, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) straddle the pre- and post-Apartheid eras. They combine novel use of law with human rights advocacy to cajole or compel various spheres and departments of government to fulfill their constitutional duties and also to try to limit the abuses of corporate power.

Then on issues like the rights to basic education and health “new” movements like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Equal Education have burst into being to salve the wounds left by a retreating and failing state.

More recently on issues like the environment, new networks like the association of Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA) have emerged that try to ameliorate harms caused by corporations, remotely controlled from foreign boardrooms, that rampage like alien predators across environments and communities that once sustained local economy and life.

Finally, on a more political level, organisations like Corruption Watch and R2K aim to catalyse social movements that will expose and end corruption.

There is no encyclopedia of South African civil society. But measured empirically, it seems to have the markings of a new socio-political phenomenon. Should you listen to the noise it makes on social media, witness its protests, or look at the official place occasioned to it at various governmental fora (such as the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) or the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC)), you would think the same.

Alongside government, business and labour, you might begin to think of it as ‘the fourth power’.

But before we get too carried away, it is important to ask how effective civil society really is. Does its sound and fury signify something or nothing?

For example, some might argue that when civic noise is measured against the crucial indicators of human well-being – people’s access to quality education, health, gainful employment – it is questionable as to whether all the frenzied energy is bringing about change:

  • The quality and outcomes of education are worsening;
  • People’s health and access to health services are worsening;
  • Unemployment is rising.

If its impact is to be judged by these indicators civil society is clearly not (yet) a power.

Don’t get me wrong! Things would be much worse without civil society.

Our 21st century dystopia more and more resembles the remains of the earth depicted in the 2013 blockbuster Elysium. In this world civil society is keeping alive ideals of solidarity, self-sacrifice and the hope of justice.

In the midst of the commodity rampage, and the profiteering now to be made from selling as services what our Constitution states are human rights, basic education and health particularly, civil society is often the only part of society that does something for nothing. It doesn’t… bill by the half-hour; shuffle people in and out of consultation rooms with not a lingering thought for their wellbeing once the bill is paid; it is still willing to provide a service to people made poor by bad governance without expecting a fee. Activists are the only people willing to mobilise communities to protest about the gaps between the dim lives and their bright rights.

And occasionally it has demonstrated that it has the power to change government policy and compel the delivery of tangible benefits to people on the basis that this is their constitutional right. On HIV/AIDS, for example, the mobilisation of the TAC has led to over two million people receiving anti-retroviral treatment. On rights to housing and basic education, civil society has also been able to influence government policy for the better. And on issues like the arms deal, the Marikana massacre and the Secrecy Bill, its mere presence is an irritant to power, a caution, a reminder that somebody is watching. It is the only check against impunity.

But endless amelioration is not what civil society should be about.

Shouldn’t civil society also be seeking lasting change?

We live in dangerous times. Much of the 20th century was marked by the binary division between ‘cold war’ powers on either side of the iron curtain. This has broken. It has been supplanted by the comparative anarchy of multiple powers of the hot war; these are the waning but still significant power of the world’s big governments, the overlapping and unbridled power of the corporate sector (the 1%) and the growing power and allure of various fundamentalisms.

In this context, the sad fact of the suffering matter is that for all its sound and fury, civil society is proving largely ineffective at bringing about deep structural change and social betterment. Despite its global girth it remains a pale shadow of the big powers.

So the question we should be asking ourselves is: what is required for civil society to become a power for transformation – rather than the sum of its campaigns?

Why do we suffer from this anaemia? Why the disjuncture between our energy and our outcome?

These pressing questions have recently been raised in a letter penned by several civil society leaders from across the globe.

To add to the debate, I post my view of what might be called the ‘five facets of failure’:

  1. Civil society is often un-strategic and un-coordinated: It is working on too many issues and resolving too few. Yes, Mr Hawken, there has been a blossoming of a million flowers. But they are on a million different stalks, sometimes blooming merrily in the same field, blithely oblivious to the flower that blooms from the clod next door.
  2. Parts of civil society have been co-opted into propping up inefficient consultative institutions or programmes. There is not enough critical discernment, so time is wasted in endless processes that are offered-up as sop to participation but which often deliver nothing. If you want evidence of the lack of real conviction in many of these processes witness meetings where gilded civil (society) servants are lost in their iPhones, iPads and  laptops.
  3. Civil society organisations are denied hard managerial skills: Unlike the other powers, many NGOs and social movements have weak management and accountability systems. Achieving a balance between bureaucracy and spontaneity is not easy. Campaigns that institutionalise easily ossify. But campaigns do need to be sustained and this requires management systems. The failure to find activist managers means that complex organisations, full of potential, frequently collapse.
  4. Civil society is dependent: when the trade union movement was built, its power – which continues to this day – came from the fact that low-paid workers drew from meager wage packets to invest in their own struggle. By contrast, civil society funds itself from governments and foundations that do not want radical change. Fitting in with donor cycles creates permanent insecurity, short-termism and allows minority agendas (even when they are ‘progressive’) to cherry pick how people should mobilise around majority concerns. Then the need to constantly replenish funds from these fair weather friends often takes the best activist leaders away from people and communities where change is needed.
  5. Parts of Civil society are complicit: As organisations have grown they have been bought, taken over, their leaders monied and made risk-averse.

Civil society has frequently shown that it can make small change. But – like a virus – the ills that we target become immune to repeat attack. In response to our bleating, governments and corporates will sometimes play with us, sometimes humour us and occasionally, when necessary, seek to smash us. The new fundamentalists just ignore us.

And here lies the rub that makes a calamity of so long life: despite its manifold theories of change (a new pet of many donor workers) civil society operates outside of politics. This does not mean it needs an ideology or a party – far from it – but it must have an understanding of inequality and what perpetuates it.

This might mean breaking up with some of our friends, but without it we are naked.

The world is fast approaching a civilisational crossroads and therefore so is civil society. We face a choice. We have at most a few years to change our modus operandi or face being overwhelmed and made irrelevant by an increasingly barbarous society.

The vast majority of the world’s population today experiences social injustice. Those who organise around principles of social justice may be the last hope, the last redoubt of decency and community. Our organisations are the last hiding place where people still dream of dignity, equality and opportunity for all. But the pursuit of social justice remains a minority sport. The coalescence Hawken dreamed of has yet to take place.

After 250 years of a difficult birth, one thing we should understand is that justice has never triumphed just because it is just. DM

Photo: Refugees from xenophobic violence give the details from their temporary identity cards to a volunteer from the African Diaspora Forum NGO, at the Rand Airport camp near Germiston, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 August 2008. EPA/JON HRUSA


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