In our view

Civil society should act, unapologetically

An opinion piece by Shelagh Gastrow, Executive Director of Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement and Melanie Judge, a human rights activist and an Inyathelo Associate

There is currently a ‘citizens’ partnership’ campaign underway to develop a public participation framework for parliament. Judging by the extensive advertising involved, there is obviously significant funding available for this campaign.

On parliament’s website it explains that the campaign is about parliament’s desire to make public participation “an integral part of parliament and the legislatures’ lawmaking and oversight functions”. It goes on to say that this will be done by ensuring that adequate avenues are provided for people to participate in the business of parliament and the legislatures; that public inputs are integrated into and inform parliamentary and legislative processes; and that mechanisms and standards are developed to achieve meaningful and broader public participation. All well and good!

However, the campaign is fundamentally flawed in that it’s hard to believe that members of parliament are truly interested in meaningful citizen participation.  Parliament has lost a great deal of its legitimacy. The experience of civil society organisations that have tried to engage with parliament demonstrates this. A good example is the legislature’s public consultations on the Traditional Courts Bill, against which there has been massive resistance by civil society particularly in the rural areas. 

The views of civil society were effectively silenced by the National Council of Province’s Select Committee on Security and Constitutional Development. This occurred when the Chair of the Select Committee instructed the Department of Justice and Constitutional to compile and present a summary of the public hearings and to limit it to the submissions from government departments and the South African Human Rights Commission alone.

The Chair, supported by ANC committee members, had questioned “the relevance” of the 60-plus submissions by civil society, the vast majority of which demanded the scrapping of the Bill. This occurred despite the fact that many rural women and men travelled from far-flung areas to tell parliament how the Bill would exacerbate current power abuses by traditional leaders.

The view that public submissions can be dismissed as irrelevant also arose at the recent launch of the book, ‘Striking the Rights Chord: Perspectives on Advancement from Human Rights Organisations in South Africa’. Published by Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement, it is an anthology that brings together the views and experiences of some of South Africa’s leading human rights organisations, such as the Legal Resources Centre and the Black Sash, offering a candid engagement with pressing contextual and sustainability issues facing the civil society sector today.

In an address given at the book launch, Ben Turok, a senior ANC MP, told the audience that civil society organisations “need to be serious” in engaging with parliament.  He rather disparagingly cited an example of a gender advocacy organisation that had made a “one-page” submission to parliament. His dismissal of an organisation engaged in their democratic right to public participation fails to recognise that “a people’s parliament” includes those who may not be fully literate and for whom one page might even be a barrier. During parliament’s hearings on the Traditional Courts Bill rural people relayed first hand accounts of how their basic rights and livelihoods are threatened by the unchecked power of traditional authorities, which will be further bolstered by the Bill. Some such submissions were indeed one-pagers, and no less significant for that.

In his address, Turok also castigated “some civil society organisations” for engaging with government in a “hostile” manner and warned that this was a mistake with ramifications that could include an effect on an organisation’s future funding possibilities. A recent statement issued by the ad hoc Committee on the Protection of State Information Bill, following that Bill’s passing, accused civil society organisations of “half-truths, distorted conflations and mischievous political deportment”. False aspersions have also been cast on NGOs, accused of being ‘foreign spies’. Does parliament only want a sweet-heart civil society? One that can be castigated as badly behaved when it submits strong objections to proposed legislation and challenges to anti-democratic manoeuvres? 

Other curious views on the democratic participation of civil society include that of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), a member of the ruling tri-partite alliance. The Union described some non-governmental organisations as “imperialist neoliberal forces” and threateningly asserted that the union would not accept a situation in which they could be used as “proxies to pursue certain political agendas”.

Are these views of civil society an attempt to insulate state institutions from public criticism? Both government and the state, as a distinct set of defined structures with wide-ranging powers vested in each by a broad public, ought to be pressured to function optimally. Civil society legitimately makes demands in regard to the exercise of state power.

The plurality and diversity of civil society add to the democratic mix and provide a counterweight to resist power abuses by government and business. It is not political elites but rather the law and the Constitution that demarcate the parameters for the relationship between civil society, government and state institutions. Those that hold any form of political power should grasp this rudimentary aspect of democratic practice and legislative accountability. Challenging attempts to delegitimise civil society’s contribution to the development of legislation should be where Parliament focuses its efforts rather than on costly public relations campaigns.

Civil society organisations are, of course, not above criticism, but attempts to dictate their modus operandi must be resisted. A healthy tension between multiple actors, with sometimes competing priorities and principles, is a democratic prerequisite. Frequent attacks on civil society are precisely why we need an active citizenry that operates outside of dominant state structures. Civil society is the lifeblood of our democracy and has a right and an obligation to act, unapologetically, to keep checks on the abuses and excesses of power.