In our view

This government is determined to close down civil society space - Cape Times, 12 Nov 2012

By Inyathelo Programme Director Gabrielle Ritchie

HOW serious are the current threats to civil society to our freedom of expression, to our freedom to hold government to account - vigorously and vocally? I don't know about you, but from where I sit, it's looking serious. A number of things have happened over the past few weeks that are alarmingly threatening to South Africa's civil society space - and in ways more fundamental than a lack of funding.

South Africa's democratic teachers' union, Sadtu, appears particularly challenged by the notion of democracy, saying that it will "go after" non-profit organisations working in education who they describe as "imperialist neoliberal forces" and accusing them of having "an agenda".

I suspect they are referring to non-profits seeking to call our teachers and our national and provincial education departments to account with regard to how they are spending taxpayers' money. Sounds like a democracy to you?

Minister for Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has slammed the media as being irresponsible and destructive, and has included the state-run SABC in his sweeping accusations. He has indicated his lack of understanding about why the ANC is not pursuing the Media Affairs Tribunal – which you will remember was designed to give wide-ranging powers to clamp down on media reporting. Sound like a repressive regime to you?

The Protection of Information Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill are also still on the agenda. Both these Bills are designed to close down democratic spaces acquired through South Africa’s liberation. Both will limit the freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights that forms the core of our Constitution. The rights of women in rural areas are under particular threat, following the hearings in late October in which the National Council of Provinces insisted that the views of NGOs present were "irrelevant". Sound like a Bantustan for women to you?

The Department of Trade and Industry has quietly called for provincial consultations with non-profits around their proposed Lotteries Policy Amendments – so quietly in fact that only five people pitched up for the Cape Town session because the invites were sent out after the consultation had started. The DTI has also very quietly called for comments on their proposed amendments to the B-BBEE Code of Good Practice. The amendments imply that only companies supporting organisations with 100 percent black South African beneficiaries will qualify for full BEE points on the socio-economic development element of the code. In other words, corporates will only be able to claim full points on their BEE scorecard if they give to organisations that don’t assist any white South Africans or foreign nationals. Sound like apartheid and xenophobia to you?

From where I am sitting, it sounds deafeningly like South Africa’s main pre-requisites for a strong democracy are currently under direct threat: freedom of expression, freedom of the media, freedom to access funding, freedom of choice by funders about who and what they fund, and the freedom and power of citizens to hold their elected representatives and public services to account. 

This combination of potentially repressive proposals and utterances highlights the attempts by government to close down civil society space – the very space that represents our democratic freedoms. The right of civil society organisations to exist is enshrined in our Constitution and we cannot allow our government to introduce a slew of bills, policies and strategies that effectively shut us down.

Social media provides a wide-open space right now for like-minded individuals to find each other and meet – virtually or in person, formally in organisations or informally by association. So, what next? Will they eventually come for Twitter?  Just let them try.

We need to wake up, take note and take action. Now. Our democratic rights and freedoms won’t remain the status quo unless we remain continually vigilant and unless South Africans stop looking to others to do the work. This is our nation, our country, our government, and we need to take up the calls (most recently through Mamphela Ramphele’s Citizens Movement for Social Change) to be active citizens – involved in and committed to maintaining and strengthening South Africa’s democracy.

Gabrielle Ritchie is Programme Director at Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement, a non-profit organisation focused on strengthening civil society and promoting local philanthropy.