By Rod Morgan
A recent article in the media asks the question: ’What does activism in South Africa look like?’ and follows up with a challenge to all our citizens,
‘Democratic South Africa has been born out of activism: citizens standing up against a government they found unjust, from small acts of dissent, to a life of exile or imprisonment and sometimes death, but what does activism mean in election year 2014?
‘It is determined mainly by the class interests of the activists and can be divided roughly according to the niches they represent: poor communities taking on what they see as an uncaring state; progressive-leaning Civil Rights Organizations (CSO’s) forcing the state, often through the courts, to provide what the Constitution promises; activists who organize around special interests e.g. the environment or women’s rights; and middle class activists who focus their efforts on issues such as crime and violence or language, culture and animal rights.
One of the major challenges is the dominance of the ruling party. In formal dealings with all levels of government, submissions are invited, but this engagement is just going through the motions and fails to seriously take people’s concerns on board. Herein lays the great divide: party politics is about power and activism is about principles. Both are necessary but, unfortunately, party politics have overwhelmed the conversation on almost every issue.
‘The most vivid memory of activism in apartheid South Africa was protest, most notably promoted by the United Democratic Front’s un-governability campaign of the 1980s. The problem is that post-apartheid theme persists, to the point where activism is considered synonymous with service delivery protests and forcing the state to fulfill its function.’
Following the first democratic elections in 1994, the political demands of broader society were seen to have been met and consequently social society activism went into decline. The wisdom of hindsight tells us that this was a mistake as successive governments have found it impossible to meet the expectations of the electorate, more particularly those on the margins. They, in turn, act out their frustrations in violent protest.
The problem here is that there is no deep level of community organization, political education and navigation of the democratic system that is needed to achieve a positive outcome.
This brings us more or less up to date. What is clear is that CSOs are again needed to play their traditional role of holding government and big business to account. Democracy can only be strong when social society is vigilant and engaged.
Democracy is based on the principle of citizens having rights and privileges but also equal and opposite duties and obligations. Every citizen has a duty to be vigilant and engaged as his/her contribution to fulfilling the second part of this equation.
So how do citizens get involved?
Well, there is an enormous list of organizations to choose from, tailor made to meet every type of interest or concern:
- Africa Centre for Biosafety: campaigns against the genetic engineering, privatization, industrialization, and corporate control of Africa’s food systems.
- Afesis-corplan: campaigns to achieve good governance, land access and local government development, working with ward committees and municipal officials.
- Amnesty International: campaigns for internationally recognized human rights.
- Centre for Environmental Rights: provides legal and related support to environmental CSOs and communities.
- Children’s Rights Centre: campaigns to defend, advance and realize all the constitutional and human rights of children.
- Civicus: assist CSO’s to create engaged and informed citizens and build the values and principles needed for collective actions.
- Cooperative and Policy Alternatives Centre: campaigns to advance grass roots development through the establishment of cooperatives in poor communities.
- Corruption Watch: campaigns to raise awareness of corruption and mobilize public action.
These are the first few CSOs appearing on a very long list of organizations committed to maintaining the checks-and-balances in a functioning democratic society. Others, in greater detail, will be the subject for another day.