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Towards rebuilding the South Africa we want: Unmuting Civil Society for sustainability, resilience, and social transformation.

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Boichoko Ditlhake, Civil Society Support Manager, Kagiso Trust

It is no understatement that South Africa is under siege from many fronts, afflicted by corruption, violent crimes such as cash-in-transits, violation and killing of women and girl children, collapse of state institutions and governance, and service delivery failures, among others. As a result, ordinary citizens are at their wits’ end as to how to effectively express their frustration and hopelessness at being left out – and have resorted to violent protests to express their fading hopes.

The majority of South Africans want our young constitutional democracy to succeed and to deliver on the post-apartheid promises of an equitable and prosperous country. For this to be realised, we need visionary, selfless and ethical leadership to address the scourge of unemployment, inequality and poverty, crime, gender-based violence, and corruption to steer resilient and sustainable growth. The question is whether we have such political leadership. It is for this reason that active space needs to be created between progressive and democratic forces to interrogate and nurture the rebirth of the civil society sector on a solid basis. Emphasis must be placed on the role of youth and women within the sector, including CBOs and NGOs, particularly to re-establish the community organising ethos which has historically guided and anchored the progressive NGO sector.

In this context, civil society, comprising nongovernmental organisations, community-based organisations, and grassroots initiatives, plays a pivotal role in shaping the course of our nation. In South Africa’s quest for sustainability, resilience, and social transformation, unbridling the potential of civil society is instrumental. The sector must promote social transformation and be a catalyst for the change needed for a successful South Africa. The sector must actively advocate for social justice. Civil society organisations must champion human rights, equality, and social justice, working to eradicate systemic discrimination and promoting inclusivity. This must include cultural revival at grassroots level through fostering a sense of identity and unity in the country.

For the sustainability of these initiatives, the youth must be consciously and actively engaged and empowered through education, skills-building, and leadership programmes, cultivating a new generation of informed and active citizens.

To effectively “unmute” civil society towards rebuilding the South Africa people want, certain principles should be considered:

Inclusivity: Civil society efforts must be inclusive and representative of diverse demographics. This ensures that the rebuilding process addresses the needs and aspirations of all segments of society.

Collaboration: Collaboration among civil society formations, government, and the private sector is crucial. This collective effort can pool resources, expertise, and influence for more significant impact.

Capacity building: Empowering civil society organisations with the necessary resources, skills, and support enhances their ability to drive change effectively.

Advocacy and policy influence: Civil society should be engaged in policy discussions and advocacy efforts to shape laws and regulations that align with sustainability, resilience, and transformation goals.

Long-term vision: Sustainable change takes time. Civil society initiatives should be guided by a long-term vision, fostering progress and adaptability to changing circumstances.

It is therefore important for South African civil society to enter a new age of maturity by reflecting on the existing challenges, nationally and internally, and determine if it is fit for purpose. In the coming months leading to the national elections in 2024, our resilience and capabilities will be tested. We will be asked where were we when our country was captured and stolen, when corruption became the new normal – and what did we do and why? Here we will hear from communities who face daily threats of violence for being different – and we will be asked – will you stand with us and protect us and help us remove the cultural and social prejudices? We will hear from our mothers, sisters and girl children who face domestic violence and sexual abuse on a daily basis – and we will be asked – where were you when we were violated and murdered, and what did you do?

We continue to live through a time of demoralising crime, economic, political, racial, class and gender schisms which are tearing our nation apart. We need moral leadership to rethink and recast our future through the renewal of our moral compass to reset South Africa and get it back to working effectively. This appeals to women and men of extraordinary courage, moral strength, selflessness, and fearless determination to unwaveringly reverse the derailment of our democratic project, and lead us to dream once again, to re-envision our future possibilities, and lay a solid foundation for the restoration of our social contract as a nation. The NGO sector is challenged to be that saviour, to do once more what it did during the darkest hours of our nation under apartheid.

It was this recognition that Kagiso Trust, during February 2022, made a call to action for the rebuilding of the NGO sector. This call led to the convening of the #Unmute Civil Society Coalition conference in November 2022. The conference was aimed at reempowering civil society to unite to respond effectively to the existing crisis, but also to re-arm itself through unity of purpose and coordinated initiatives to address its internal challenges. The conference resolved to establish a coordination structure for the sector, and mandated an interim steering committee to go back to districts and provinces for further consultations that will result in the second consultative conference towards the formation of the sector coordination and organising spirit.

Civil society can be a potent force in rebuilding the South Africa envisioned by its constitution. By addressing issues of sustainability, resilience, and social transformation, civil society can contribute to shaping a more equitable, just, and prosperous nation. However, achieving these goals requires a concerted effort, collaboration, and a commitment to fostering positive change at all levels of society.

This article was published in Inyathelo's 2023 Annual Report 


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