Civil society must tackle major issues of the day
WE SURRENDERED a powerful resource in 1994 and the years immediately after when we assumed the war against bad government was won and allowed our vibrant civil society to wither.
International donors began to scale down their support as soon as Nelson Mandela raised his hand to take the oath of office as president. Donor aid that did continue was largely switched from antiapartheid agencies to budget support for government. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund quickly became the charity of choice for corporations, sympathetic foreign aid agencies and individuals keen to help South Africa overcome the legacies of apartheid.
For a decade or more, we delegated our responsibility for social construction to the state, assuming the good guys who had brought us freedom would create a new South Africa to match all our dreams and aspirations.
But once the warming glow of our dawning democracy had turned into the hot glare of daylight, it became obvious politicians here are the same as politicians everywhere. South Africa had not won a free pass to the Garden of Eden with a permanent rainbow overhead.
Our maturing democracy is not intrinsically rotten or even bad, it’s just real. We are still the best that Africa has produced and a lot better than Greece or Russia right now. Our government probably is more honest and responsive than Italy’s and at least as committed to development as India’s government is.
But because we dropped our guard in the years after the electoral defeat of apartheid, we have allowed some of the wrong people to accumulate too much power and to assume they can keep it without challenge or criticism.
As just one example of that phenomenon, we have the once charming Lindiwe Sisulu behaving like Marie Antoinette, denying our elected parliament even the most basic information about the defence forces she oversees. Her dismissal of parliamentary questions is nothing short of contemptuous. Her abuse of security as an excuse to withhold potentially embarrassing information mocks the spirit of the constitution we are all so proud of.
Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, is showing signs of the same imperial affliction, picking and choosing which findings of the Public Protector to cheer and which to jeer.
As the freedom fighters and pro-democracy activists of our past morph into fulltime politicians, our role as citizens must be to pick up our guard and hold them to account for every important decision.
Our constitution envisages a participatory democracy. So far, we have tended to assume that the government at its various levels will invite our participation, listen to our voices and make consultation meaningful. But consultation actually is an irritating brake on decision-making. It takes time, it delivers inconvenient conclusions and it gets in the way of the patronage that fuels politics everywhere.
Well, tough. Participation is what we asked for in the negotiations between 1990 and the final sign off of our constitution in 1996, it’s what we were promised in that text and it is ours for the taking.
We should not wait for politicians and parties to organise us. If we do, we become bound by the decisions taken by small groups of party activists who steer government policy from the back rooms of their respective headquarters.
Civil society, from NGOS, unions and churches to newspapers forced the government to take the charges against police commissioner Bheki Cele seriously, to sideline Lieutenant General Richard Mdluli as head of police crime intelligence, to rewrite the Protection of State Information Bill three times since it was first proposed, to review the plan to burden commuters with highway tolls that would quickly have been matched in every province, to dump the politically partisan Advocate Willem Heath as head of the Special Investigating Unit and to recast important legislation including, but not limited to, laws on film and publications, communications and the protection of personal information.
In all these cases, the decisive weight has been the contributions of organisations that are not overtly aligned, or, like Cosatu on the road toll issue, which have felt able to challenge their allies.
Allowing parties to own the various positions in a dispute largely ensures the debate will be barren. No reason or logic will change the vested interests of politics. But when people coalesce around an issue of principle or social relevance because they feel strongly about it, rather than because it is the announced position of their political party, mountains can move.
Politicians will, of course, try to own potentially successful campaigns and to pin inconvenient ones on the other side, so that support or opposition become matters of political loyalty rather than reason or social good. Politics is about control. Politicians are control freaks – they have to be.
As we edge towards our third decade of freedom, let’s dredge up the vigour that delivered it by teaming up with like-minded citizens to impose our own controls.
Families of prisoners could get together to fight for better prison conditions, members of school governing bodies could form regional or provincial associations to demand a better deal for our children, small business owners could club together to demand a more supportive regulatory environment.
If we say no thanks when political parties try to muscle in, if we keep to focus on the issues we care about, we can claim the right to influence political decisions in the direction we want them to go.
We can tackle cronyism, corruption, incompetence and neglect as participatory citizens much better than as party political foot soldiers. Brendan Boyle is editor of the Daily Dispatch