How civil society has strengthened democracy in South Africa

by William Gumede, Executive Chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation

South Africa’s civil society organisations have increasingly become the last line of defense fighting on behalf of ordinary citizens against out-of-control corruption, public service delivery failure and abuse of power by elected and public representatives. The collapse of apartheid was a success story of global and local civil society pressure against the apartheid government. South Africa’s civil society landscape is much more diverse, dynamic and assertive in holding government accountable, fighting corruption and supporting democracy and democratic institutions, than in many comparable developing countries.

South Africa’s model constitution gives a special place for civil society to play an oversight role over democratic institutions, monitor human rights and give citizens, especially the poor, vulnerable and excluded, the tools to know and assert their rights. In South Africa, civil society groups have in the post-1994 era continued to hold the democratic government to account.

However, upholding democratic rights has often come at a price. A number of individual civil society activists have been murdered while fighting for democratic rights, while others have seen their government funding, support, and contracts withdrawn for being critical of government.

The power of South African civil society has been demonstrated by its consistent mobilisation. Civil society organisations compelled many ANC members and leaders to act against former president Jacob Zuma and many other elected leaders and public servants alleged to have been involved in corruption. Former ANC and South African president Thabo Mbeki faced long-running civil society opposition for his refusal to make HIV/Aids medicines available at public hospitals, his perceived lack of consultation and marginalisation of critics.

South Africa’s civil society has provided public services in many instances of public service delivery failures across the country. Civil society organisations such as the Johannesburg Welfare Society, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) and Cotlands provide essential basic services, where the state is often absent. In this way, civil society organisations have strengthened the capacity of the South African state. In fact, without these organisations providing public services, South Africa’s public service delivery crises would be considerably worse, with more violent protests and disruption.

Civil society organisations have gone to court to challenge the lack of public service delivery. They have successfully used the constitution, the bill of rights and the judiciary to press for democratic rights, freedoms and equality, and quality public services for the poor, vulnerable and excluded. Organisations such as Section27 took up the fight on behalf of families when 140 mentally ill patients died because of negligence by the Gauteng provincial Health Department, which moved patients to the care of NGOs without the skills, funding or resources to look after them.

Civil society organisations have defended the constitution in instances where public and elected representatives deliberately contravened it, and when opportunists blamed the constitution for specific government failures. Organisations such as the Council for the Advancement of the Constitution (CASAC) have successfully fought breaches of the constitution by elected and public officials in the courts.

Civil society organisations such as the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) and the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) have pushed for access to information from government, as a crucial right that enables other human, democratic and socio-economic rights. They have also fought for the right to freedom of expression, to protest and to dissent.

In 2012, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) initiated the establishment of Corruption Watch, a dedicated organisation to fight public and private corruption. Civil society organisations, from across the ideological spectrum, under the banner United Against Corruption, from 2015 onwards marched against rising public corruption and have gone to court to challenge this scourge. Through such actions, ordinary citizens have been galvanised to protest, in the form of marches, petitions and online discussions against corruption, in numbers not seen since apartheid. The media has also kept corruption on the agenda, exposed corruption and continued to report on the issue.

In 2016, South Africa aligned itself with African countries in the United Nations General Assembly to oppose the appointment of an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity by the UN Human Rights Council. However, South African civil society organisations sent an open letter to then Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, asking the department for South Africa to break from the conservative African lobby and adopt a pro-gay rights stance in line with the country’s democratic constitution. Civil society organisations who signed the letter included Sonke Gender Justice, Gender Dynamix and Lawyers for Human Rights.

The South African government then switched at the UN General Assembly vote in favour of the appointment of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity by the UN Human Rights Council.

Groups such as Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei) have tenuously fought government’s attempt to build new nuclear power stations and embark on nuclear procurement in secret without public consultation, and to make information related to the nuclear building programme publicly available.

South Africa’s trade unions have ensured, through public campaigns, the adoption and entrenchment of basic employee rights, including the right to strike, and minimum safety and working conditions for those in formal employment. The trade union movement played an instrumental role in securing the adoption of a minimum wage – even if the agreed minimum wage of R20 an hour is low.

Civil society organisations have increasingly stepped in to hold corporates accountable for current and past wrongs, fight corruption and pressure government to hold corporates accountable. They have also publicly educated citizens about their rights.
In spite of declining funding, South African civil society has largely stepped up to the challenge to defend the constitution, democracy, and its institutions. Civil society organisations have fought public and private corruption, and helped protect vulnerable South African citizens from government abuse – by fighting on behalf of ordinary citizens, and strengthened the capacity of the state by often providing alternative public services where the state fails.

In many instances, they have made alternative information available where governments and leaders had either hidden or obscured the true facts, and fought to scrap apartheid-era laws which deny democratic rights to citizens. They have also supported democratic institutions when these were being marginalised, corrupted and manipulated by political leaders.

Without active civil society organisations, the rollback of democratic rights in the past few years, the decline in the public service delivery and rising corruption would have been ultimately worse.

(This article is a shortened version of Democracy Works Foundation Policy Brief 28, titled “How civil society has strengthened democracy in South Africa“ by William Gumede.)

William Gumede is the Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation, Associate Professor at the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

This is the third NGO analysis of my #NGOs4Africa Campaign.


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