By Inyathelo Associate, Melanie Judge.
Last week saw the 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, and edited by myself and Sean Jones, it is a candid anthology of views and experiences from some of South Africa’s leading human rights activists and organisations, such as the Legal Resources Centre and the Black Sash, engaging with pressing contextual and sustainability issues in the civil society sector.
At the launch, in my capacity as co-editor, I highlighted aspects that impact on civil society organisations’ prospects for future sustainability.
These include, amongst others, the growing gap between wealth and privilege on the one hand, and social and economic exclusions on the other; current threats to democratic principles and institutions; the contraction of international funding support to civil society; the State’s failure to adequately fund non-governmental organisations; and the lacklustre approach of local donors and philanthropists to support human rights causes. I stressed that many organisations are battling to survive at a time when the advancement of Constitutional principles and social justice is in the balance.
I cautioned that a national preoccupation with the machinations of political elites obscures the importance of civil society leadership as critical to a thriving democracy. Also, civil society enables the bringing of those who remain marginalised to the centre of our politics while holding those who occupy the centres of power to account.
Ben Turok, a senior member of parliament for the ruling party, was also invited to speak at the book launch. It seemed that my inputs, and the views expressed in the book, had raised Turok’s hackles as he used the public platform as an opportunity to castigate me and “some civil society organisations” for engaging with government in a “hostile” manner. He warned that for NGOs to develop hostility towards government is “a mistake” and went as far as to say that such an approach could impede organisation’s future funding possibilities.
As a public representative he is accountable for these utterances, insofar as they attempt to set the terms of engagement between civil society and government and serve to dismiss legitimate contestations by civil society organisations through branding them as “hostile”. Also, it is unacceptable for a member of parliament to issue a veiled threat such as that funding to organisations will be contingent on how they engage with government. Turok’s assertions reveal a failure to grasp that democracy entails a civil society not beholden or accountable to political masters.
Does Turok’s reproach signal a desire to insulate state institutions from public criticism? The state, as a distinct set of defined structures with wide-ranging powers vested in it by a broad public, ought to be pressured to function optimally. Civil society, representing a public outside of the state, legitimately makes demands in regard to the exercise of state power and the functioning of these structures. 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 and state institutions. As a long-standing parliamentarian, Turok should grasp this rudimentary aspect of democratic practice and legislative accountability.
In his quest for a less hostile civil society, perhaps Turok seeks a loyal, consenting form of public engagement – one that is less adversarial and that ultimately defers to what political leadership deems as ‘the greater good’. But, unlike the past, that’s not how our constitutional democracy works.
Turok also stated that civil society organisations “need to be serious” in engaging with parliament. He then rather disparagingly cited an example of a gender advocacy organisation that made a “one-page” submission to parliament. Turok also took a swipe at the media for uncovering corruption. He was at pains to point out that there is rigorous internal debate within the ANC on such matters. That’s all fine and well, but civil society and the media’s critique of governance is not subject to the procedures and constraints of internal party politics.
Turok’s assertions are all the more significant in light of both the Protection of State Information Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill. His discourse of badly behaved civil society organisations resonates with a growing disdain by some ANC members toward organisations that challenge anti-democratic manoeuvres. During parliament’s Traditional Courts Bill hearings, rural people, many of them women, relayed experiences 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.
A recent statement issued by the ad hoc Committee on the Protection of State Information Bill, following the Bill’s passing last week, accused civil society opponents of the Bill of “half-truths, distorted conflations and mischievous political deportment”.
False aspersions are cast on this critical site of democratic practice when civil society opponents are accused of being ‘foreign spies’. These attempts to delegitimise the contribution of civil society to legislative developments should be where Turok directs his efforts. Ironically, Turok was one of two MPs that refrained from voting for the Bill and that landed him in hot water from party bosses.
Civil society organisations are to be commended for their ongoing contribution to deepening democracy and social justice. They are, of course, not above criticism, but it is not public representatives’ place to dictate their modus operandi.
Space for, and a healthy tension between, multiple actors with sometimes competing priorities and principles, is a democratic prerequisite. Turok’s strike at civil society is precisely why we need an active citizenry that operates outside of dominant state structures. His and others’ attempts to define and contract the democratic space must be resisted. Both the media and human rights organisations have an obligation to unapologetically keep checks on government’s exercise of power. This might not make us popular with the Turoks of the world but it’s a vital feature of the post-apartheid body politic and should be advanced.