In our view

Dear Mr Cronin, take a hard look at your own party before slamming NGOs - 07 Feb 2012 CAPE TIMES

By Shelagh Gastrow

ACCORDING to Jeremy Cronin ("State and civil society can join sides," Insight, January 30), those of us working for non-profit organisations have been hoodwinked by a liberalist, neo-liberal socio-political economic ideology! Instead of contributing to a stronger democracy as we had thought, the deputy general secretary of the SA Communist Party argues that civil society sees itself as a "realm standing outside of the state", placing itself onto the terrain of liberalism where the state is viewed as a necessary evil, and civil society as the realm of freedom.

The idea that civil society can be separate from the democratic state is a misnomer. As citizens, we are part of the state, as organisations we function within the laws of the state and in terms of the state's constitution we have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of association. In South Africa, we live in a free and democratic state, a constitutional democracy. Cronin conflates the state with government and control by the party that is voted in by the majority But government is only one part of the state, and citizens and organisations are not outside of the state.

The ANC has for some time objected to civil society organisations with the critique that nobody has voted for these organisations and that they are therefore unaccountable. Cronin repeats this accusation (which has also been used against the judiciary recently) - but he is walking on thin ice. Whatever he feels about representation, our constitution defends our right to free association and freedom of expression. Any individual has the right to hold the state to account, as does a group, an organisation, a movement, a society or any other structure. And besides, civil society isn't there only to check the state but also to keep a watchful eye on the corporate sector. Civil society organisations have been very effective at exposing businesses who exploit child labour, or are guilty of unfair labour practice, or environmental degradation, or price-fixing and excessive profit making.

In any event, the accusation about NGOs being unaccountable and unrepresentative is a non-starter. Civil society is a space where citizens have the right, and the freedom, to organise with like-minded people around particular issues or to work for particular socio-political, economic and/or cultural causes. It is arguable that Cronin is completely wrong on this particular point. Firstly, because civil society organisations are accountable - to their members, beneficiaries, donors and communities; and secondly, that by contrast, it is political parties that are failing to account for where their funds come from, or where they have invested their party money. They also don't seem to feel the need to tell us when their cadres benefit from private and other deals. The problem with Cronin's call for civil society formations to partner with the state (read government) to drive back the power of the "market", is that our ruling party is so tightly bound to that market when it comes to its income, its deals, and its cadres' business interests.

The current inability of the state to deliver even basic services to its citizens has only encouraged the market and, as a consequence, we are being forced to privatise almost every facet of our society from hospitals, to schools, to security It has also meant that communities (and the government) are increasingly becoming more reliant on organisations within civil society to deliver basic services. Does Cronin honestly expect these organisations to meekly deliver services and have no opinion about the state? Tragically, South African citizens are feeling increasingly alienated from government. The bureaucracy is malfunctioning and is not seen as a servant of the people, but rather as a place to make money. The government's processes are largely unaccountable and difficult to track, as in the case of the arms deal and other state tenders. In addition, the government plans to introduce the so-called secrecy bill to hide all of this from the public. What is happening is that the government is trying to create a state with less freedom and less accountability and civil society will push back.

In his article, Cronin ventures into very dangerous territory when he suggests that our constitution is anti-majoritarian - this means that he believes the constitution undermines the choice of the voting public, However, the idea that once a government has been elected, it should not be checked by its citizens, whether individual or in groups or through the courts, including those who might have voted for it, is extremely dangerous. This is the kind of thinking that led to Stalinism and Fascism. There are two lessons history has always taught us: firstly, that the majority is not always right, and secondly, that it is power (and not ideology) which corrupts.

Ironically, Jeremy Cronin is a member of the SACP. Roughly the size of a large NGO, the SACP does-n't reveal who pays its bills; it is not accountable to our society or the state for its decision making; it doesn't represent the electorate; and it is closely aligned to a governing party that is tightly bound to neo-liberal-ism itself. Before complaining about the lack of representivity and accountability of other organisations, he should look closer to home. Gastrow is executive director of Inyathelo: The South African Institute of Advancement, which is dedicated to building a sustainable South African civil society. 'The idea that a government can't be criticised is very dangerous'