Civil Society as Advocate of Social Change in Pre- and Post-transition Societies: Building Sound Governance in South Africa



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Civil Society as Advocate of Social Change

in Pre- and Post-transition Societies:

Building Sound Governance in South Africa1

by



Phiroshaw Camay and Anne J. Gordon

Co-operative for Research and Education (CORE)

Johannesburg, South Africa


  1. Introduction

It is well-known that South African civil society played a crucial role in the struggle against apartheid in the period leading up to the democratic transition of the early 1990s. This process culminated in the April 1994 election which brought to power a democratic government, led by the African National Congress.


Civil society organizations (CSOs) – both those allied to the democratic forces and those which had supported or acquiesced to apartheid – were faced in 1994 with a dramatically changed operating environment, with different socio-economic and political priorities at the fore. In the new democracy, virtually all existing CSOs had to revisit their missions and activities to assess whether these needed to be adjusted to changed circumstances. They had to assess how they would interact with the democratically elected government and to adapt to new political institutions, rules and cultures. CSOs involved in anti-apartheid advocacy activities have had to rethink their target audiences, the content of their messages, and their strategies. Their levels of success in making these adjustments have varied considerably.
For its part, the new government had to build new democratic institutions, set new rules in consultation with the people and civil society organizations, develop a democratic political culture, and implement its political programme aimed equality and socio-economic development. The demands of democracy on government are huge, especially in such a divided society, characterized by racism, intolerance, and mistrust. As it worked towards building the new democratic system, a key question was how government would relate to the diversity and capabilities present within civil society.
This paper explores the hypothesis that South African civil society has been an effective advocate of social change and has led to improved governance in the periods before, during and after the democratic transition. This is qualified by two major caveats: first, that civil society itself is contested terrain with organizations and networks representing varying interests, and second, that organizations take positions vis-à-vis government which vary with their own shifting constituencies, with the issues at hand, and with the prevailing political context. The rationale underlying these caveats will be clarified in the course of the paper.
We begin in Section 2 with an explanation of key concepts and their relevance to the South African context. Then, using the examples of three types of CSOs – trade unions, land and rural development CSOs, and community-based / ratepayers’ associations, Section 3 shows how they have responded to the ever-changing context in their attempts to either promote their own interests and/or advocate for broader social change. Section 4 compares these different experiences with a view to understanding how CSOs interact with and challenge the state, how they form alliances and networks to unify and strengthen their voice (either in the short or long term), and how they utilize strategies of social mobilization in support of their causes. The conclusions in Section 5 are divided into two parts. The first reflects on practical lessons for future civil society action, particularly that which aims to promote sound governance within the democratic state. The second relates the findings based on the South African experience to the broader literature on civil society and governance.


  1. Concepts and their relevance to the South African context

Even the definition of civil society is much debated. It is therefore essential to put forward the definition which, after much consideration, we have adopted for this study:



Civil society is defined as those not-for-profit organizations and groups or formations of people operating in the space between the family and the government, which are independent, voluntary and established to protect or enhance the interests and values of their members.
Significantly, we do not accept the narrow view taken by many researchers and practitioners that “civil society” refers only to those organizations which are characterized by so-called “progressive” values and norms, i.e. those which are committed to political, social and economic equality for all, to the eradication of poverty, and so on. We posit that civil society can either promote or undermine the public good.
In the South African context, it is important to understand civil society as encompassing progressive, reactionary, and apolitical organizations which interact with each other, with government and the public in a terrain that must be seen as contested. During the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the period before 1990, civil society was divided primarily between those organizations which supported the apartheid regime and those which were opposed to it. However, there were also CSOs which focused on basic aspects of community, family or individual survival in the face of discrimination and poverty. During the political transition between 1990 and 1994, most CSOs were jockeying for position in the future democratic dispensation and were focused on adjusting or renewing their missions and activities so as to remain relevant in the new era. Following the first democratic election in April 1994, CSOs have continued to compete for space and to advance their particular agendas. The progressive-reactionary divide is far less apparent. As the nation moves to establish a truly non-racial and egalitarian society, CSOs structured on a racial basis have had to transform themselves along non-racial lines, or be faced with deregistration or closure. Nonetheless, CSOs aimed at preserving the pre-1994 status quo, or at least at maintaining certain areas of privilege, continue to exist.
Various authors have given different meanings to the term governance. For the purpose of this study, we use the following definition:
Governance by the state / government is defined as the manner, method or system of governing in a society. It refers to the structure and assignment of offices and their respective areas of responsibility and authority, and how they relate to each other and to the governed. It also relates to the accountability that needs to be exercised – especially of the state to the governed.
Hyden2 confirms that good governance requires citizen3 influence and oversight, responsive and responsible leadership, and social reciprocities. He defines these concepts as follows:

  • Citizen influence and oversight: “the means by which individual citizens can participate in the political process and therefore express their preferences regarding public policy; how well these preferences are aggregated for effective policy-making; what means exist for holding governors accountable for decisions and actions”.

  • Responsive and responsible leadership: “the degree of respect for civic public realm (role as public trustees); the degree of openness of public policy-making (readiness to share information with citizens); the degree of adherence to the rule of law”.

  • Social reciprocities: “the degree of political equality (extent to which citizens or groups of citizens treat each other in an equal fashion), the degree of inter-group tolerance in the pursuit of politics, the degree of inclusiveness in associational membership (how far voluntary associations are capable of transcending the boundaries of such primary social organs as kinship, ethnicity or race)”.

In a similar vein, Okoth-Ogendo4 argues that such governance implies “creative interaction designed to promote full and effective participation by the citizenry in public affairs, accountability by the state to civic activism, continuous state-society and intra-society nexus, and ultimately, the existence of institutional arrangements founded on and designed to sustain those values”.
Soremekun5 has identified three dimensions of governance which usefully elaborate on the single concept:

  1. “Functionally, governance deals with how rules are made, legitimized and enforced.

  2. Structurally, it comprises three distinct institutions: the ruler or the state, the ruled or the society, and the rules of law. In essence, governance embodies the quality of the relationship between the state and social institutions.

  3. The normative dimension highlights the values associated with (good) governance. These include: transparency, organisation, effectiveness, accountability, predictability, legitimacy, popular participation, and plurality of choices”.

Unfortunately, the concept often referred to as “good governance” has become ideologically loaded because of its identification with and frequent misuse by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In order to avoid that political baggage, we prefer the terms “sound governance” or “democratic governance”.


March and Olsen6 define “democratic governance” from an institutional perspective, supplementing the exchange theories of political action and going beyond negotiating coalitions within given constraints of rights, rules, preferences and resources. They argue that the craft of governance involves:

  • Developing identities of citizens and groups in the political environment;

  • Developing capabilities for appropriate political action among citizens, groups and institutions – in ways that are consistent with and sustain the democratic system;

  • Developing accounts of political events which define the options available and the possibilities for action – accounts of what has happened provide a key link between citizens and government and underlie efforts to secure control and accountability;

  • Developing an adaptive political system that copes with changing demands and changing environments.

Gyimah-Boadi7 further argues that “governance, and particularly democratic governance, depends on the development of appropriate forms of civil society rather than the actions of governments themselves”, and therefore that it is most important to strengthen the self-governing capacity of segments of society. Pierre and Peters add that where democratic governance prevails, “government can govern only to the extent that the society is willing to let it govern”.8


How can civil society build sound and democratic governance in a divided society such as that in South Africa? On the positive side, SA civil society does have the benefit of a largely enabling political, legal and institutional environment.9 The political space in SA democracy permits almost all civil society perspectives, except those that violate the rights of others and those that promote hate speech or intolerance.
However, there are many challenges facing the democratic South Africa, some of which we attempt to explore in this paper. First is the social conflict that results in situations where resources are scarce and government cannot address all socio-economic priorities at once. Thus, whilst democracy is valued by the poor “because it opens up the political space for demanding social and economic rights”, it is also true that “democratization frequently entails the victory of one section of society over others”.10 To the extent that “the rules of politics make policy support an exchangeable commodity”, “disparities in wealth, power and competence” tend to “put distributional questions off the political agenda and sustain inequities”.11 Second, in a society divided by extremes of wealth and poverty, exclusion from social networks is a defining feature of being poor and marginalized,12 and this hinders social development. Third, SA society is also divided by the traditional and modern. To the extent that the traditional is linked to powerful vested interests which constrain equitable distribution and development, these must be addressed. Conversely, in many instances where South Africa has absorbed the modern without thinking through its disadvantages or appropriateness, a rethink may be necessary. Overall, the distribution of power and how it is used to promote or hinder social change needs to be taken into account in South Africa’s efforts – both by government and civil society -- to entrench sound governance.
March and Olsen13 assert that “democratic governance involves contributing to the development of accounts and procedures for interpretation that improve the transmission, retention and retrieval of the lessons of history and the use of such accounts to improve democracy”. This is the aim of this paper.



  1. Promoting their interests and/or advocating for social change: Three examples contrasting pre- and post-transition South Africa

To illustrate how different sectors of civil society have acted to promote or advocate for social change, and how they interacted with government on issues with significant implications for governance, we draw on three extensive case studies prepared in the course of this research.14 The first deals with trade unions and how they have protected workers’ interests in the context of two government-led processes to pass labour relations legislation, one in the 1980s at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle and one in the 1990s during and after the democratic transition. The second examines the role of land and rural development CSOs in advocating on behalf of rural people who were dispossessed of their land and/or forcibly moved under apartheid. The strategies utilized in the pre- and post-1994 periods and their relative effectiveness are compared. The third assesses the role of community-based associations and ratepayers’ associations, also before and after the political transition, and how organizations representing constituencies with quite different interests have resorted to the same or similar tactics to promote their agendas with differing results.


In this section, we merely provide a factual summary of what happened in each case. Interpretation and comparison is dealt with in Section 4.


    1. Trade unions

Under apartheid, black workers were severely disadvantaged, banned from holding certain types of jobs, restricted in terms of the areas in which they could live and work, and denied many of the rights accorded to white workers. Black trade unions only achieved rights comparable to those of white unions in 1979. Subsequent gains made through collective bargaining, the Labour Court, and the right to strike were however being eroded by proposed changes to the labour legislation instigated by government and white employers.
The Labour Relations Act (LRA) of 1988 was drafted and passed by the Nationalist Party apartheid government without any consultation with labour, despite the existence of the National Manpower Commission (a tripartite consultative forum but in which black trade unions did not participate as it was an apartheid institution). The Act was regarded as highly anti-labour, undermining established labour rights.
At the time, there were two major rival black trade union federations -- the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) – and several smaller unaffiliated independent black trade unions. Under threat from the new law, these rival federations and independent unions agreed to campaign together and to appoint joint legal representatives to represent their interests. They took their campaign against the LRA to employers and to communities. A large rally was planned and announced, but it was restricted by government to a venue and time, and constrained by a strong police presence. The federations sought urgent court action whilst workers met clandestinely to agree resolutions. Later, the federations laid a complaint at the International Labour Organisation (ILO, from which South Africa had withdrawn in 1964) via the United Nations Economic and Social Committee. ECOSOC accepted the complaint, and the ILO set up an investigation almost two years later. A new labour law was passed in 1991, with some changes made as a result of the protests and trade union involvement.
However, in the context of the political transition process, new negotiations began between government, employers and the unions. In 1991/92, employers and union federations agreed on a Labour Law Minute. This Minute was signed by government as well in October 1992. South Africa re-entered the ILO in 1994. The ILO agreed that the federations’ complaint was legitimate and ILO experts were appointed to assist in drafting new legislation. The National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) was established by legislation in 1994. NEDLAC was based on traditional tripartite stakeholder forums but, as an acknowledgement of the importance of broader civil society, added provision for a fourth stakeholder – “community” represented by selected constituency-based CSOs, e.g. women, youth, the disabled. A NEDLAC Task Group was appointed in 1995 to debate the draft legislation. A new Labour Relations Act, more favourable to labour, was passed in 1995. Since then, all new labour legislation and amendments have been initially debated within NEDLAC before being presented to the relevant parliamentary committees.


    1. Land and rural development CSOs

The apartheid government’s forced removals of black communities from their land met with protests both from communities themselves as well as from CSOs formed for that purpose. Between 1960 and 1962, 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their land and property. Whilst localized uprisings and revolts did occur, no mass rural movement emerged. Many traditional leaders were co-opted by the apartheid government through establishment of “homelands”, payment of stipends and provision of other resources. This made it difficult for communities under traditional authority to protest. Protest was also hindered by the fact that black farmers were not formally organized. Whereas white farmers had first formed a union to represent their interests in 1904, the first black farmers’ union was established only in 1991.
Other civil society organizations, depending on their constituencies, either tacitly accepted these oppressive policies or fought against them. Churches in South Africa owned (and still own) thousands of hectares of land. They often had a feudal relationship with tenant communities on their land and consequently, had a vested interest in the status quo. In contrast, other CSOs emerged to contest apartheid policies affecting rural communities. In 1984, the National Committee Against Removals (NCAR) was formed to protect and assist communities threatened with removal from their land. Its members tried to stop removals by taking the government to court as well as through other forms of protest. Their success was limited.
A new approach to land reform was formulated during the political transition of 1990-94 to take into account the changes expected under democratic rule. Predictably, land became a political football during this period. White commercial farmers supported Nationalist Party (NP) policy, but numerous CSOs representing black interests opposed it. These CSOs complained about the NP government’s lack of consultation on their 1991 White Paper on Land Reform and subsequent legislation. CSOs had many objections to the proposed legislation, arguing that government had set the parameters and had left little room for CSO or community inputs. Although CSO pressure led to the formation of an Advisory Commission on Land Allocation by the NP government, the Commission lacked decision-making power and no CSO nominees were appointed.
During 1991-93, the National Land Committee (NLC, formerly the NCAR) and other CSOs launched the broad-based “Back to the Land Campaign”, supporting land restitution and redistribution. The NLC constituted a network of nine CSOs working in rural areas, spread across the country. In 1993 the government tried to co-opt the NLC’s director onto the Land Reform Committee, but the director refused on principle, rightly fearing that his participation would lend legitimacy to deliberations which were unlikely to yield the results the NLC was seeking.
There were also divisions amongst CSOs, in particular with regard to the clause on protection of private property proposed in the Interim Constitution. CSOs representing black rural communities felt that the clause would prevent the return of land to their constituents. The ANC and some allied CSOs were motivated to accept the clause due to their need for political compromise with the NP. CSOs representing white farmers obviously were in favour of the clause as it would protect their land ownership, regardless of how that land was acquired, from whom, or under what unjust laws.
During the CODESA negotiations to establish an interim constitution, representatives of rural organizations protested by marching into the premises where the talks were being held. This action provided a powerful new stimulus to the negotiators to address the land issues in their deliberations.
The period after 1994 saw the formulation and passage of several major pieces of legislation aimed at various aspects of land reform, often funded by foreign donors and drafted by foreign consultants. Many former CSO leaders were brought into the Department of Land Affairs to manage implementation of the new laws. In the early, euphoric days of the democratic government, these leaders maintained fairly close relationships with their former CSOs, continuing to consult them regularly, and co-operating with them in implementation of the new policies. The NLC and other allied CSOs continued to make their own proposals on land issues, generally supportive of government’s approach but pushing harder on some issues where necessary to meet the needs of the landless.
For a variety of reasons, both administrative and political, implementation of land restitution and redistribution has been very slow. It took a long time for the new department to put in place procedures and personnel to handle land claims, and the “willing seller—willing buyer” approaches adopted did not work. Agricultural unions representing white farmers tried to slow the process. By 2000, only about 6% of land claims had been settled. As a result, the relationship between the NLC and likeminded CSOs on the one hand and government on the other grew increasingly testy and antagonistic. The NLC argued for “justice to be seen to be done”. Large numbers of landless people became increasingly impatient, their expectations having been raised but not fulfilled. Recently, out of frustration with the slow progress and government’s unwillingness to consult with them prior to revising policy, the NLC backed some communities’ illegal occupation of land. Partly as a result of such actions, the Department of Land Affairs and related agencies are speeding up restitution and redistribution.


    1. Community-based organizations and ratepayers’ associations

In order to restrict and control black communities, the apartheid government evolved a system of black local authorities (BLAs) in black townships, using co-opted black leaders and police to maintain the status quo and repress political opposition. Local government was fragmented and managed entirely based on race, with vastly larger resources being channeled by the apartheid government to white elected local authorities in white areas. As is well-known, the result was huge discrepancies in the respective quality of service provision to white and black communities.
In their attempts to undermine what were illegitimate BLAs, community-based CSOs allied to the anti-apartheid movement -- such as the Committee of 10 and the Soweto Crisis Committee -- mounted rent and rates boycotts. Many BLAs were on the verge of financial collapse by the time of the political transition. Another consequence, with unforeseen implications for democratic local government, was the development of a culture of non-payment for services within these communities.
In 1995-96, reforms were introduced aimed at restructuring local government along non-racial lines, including the merger of formerly white and black areas under new, democratically elected councils. Part of the plan involved cross-subsidisation of the poorer black areas with resources from the more affluent white areas, so as to provide essential improvements to infrastructure and access to services in previously disadvantaged communities, eventually equalizing the quantity and quality of service provision to all areas.
In 1996, as a step towards this goal, the ANC-led Greater Johannesburg Transitional Metropolitan Council (GJTMC) adopted a policy of “one city, one tax base”. They imposed a huge increase (up to 385%) in property taxes throughout the metro area, combined with an additional levy on one of its four substructures – the wealthy and primarily white Sandton area.
In response, affluent white residents through their ratepayers’ associations protested against the increases so as to protect the interests of property owners. Ironically, they adopted the “boycott” tactic previously used in the black townships as a strategy. Many members of these ratepayers’ associations began to pay only what they regarded as a reasonable increase – 20% more than their previous tax levels. Large white-owned and run businesses, as major property owners in Sandton, were also hugely affected by the new taxes and joined the boycott. They simultaneously mounted a court challenge to have the rates’ increases revoked.
Negotiations between the ratepayers’ associations, the GJTMC, and the provincial government made little progress due to intransigence, poor negotiation skills and lack of capacity on all sides. The dispute escalated further when political parties became directly involved in taking sides. Business took its case all the way to the Constitutional Court, but the Court decided in favour of the GJTMC, confirming the need for local government to raise revenue to undertake its essential functions. Following this outcome, the businesses and ratepayers ended their boycott and made arrangements to pay their arrears.
There were several notable direct and indirect consequences of these pre- and post-1994 disputes, some positive and some negative in terms of the strengthening of local governance. Despite government and CSO campaigns to overcome the culture of non-payment, rates of payment for services in the townships are only improving slowly and this remains a major problem for local government resource generation and service provision. The civic associations which first used the boycott tactic with considerable success have lost much of their support. The post-1994 election of directly accountable local government officials to some extent obviated the need for alternative community structures. In addition, the civics’ own internal conflict, mismanagement and corruption has alienated former supporters. The ratepayers’ associations involved in the Sandton dispute also suffered a considerable loss of support due to the failure of their protest. There appears to be a recent resurgence of support rooted in residents’ concerns about basic issues of infrastructure and service provision. Some of them are still tainted with a negative and racist image but more effort is being made to involve all races in debates and campaigns.
Financial management in the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council is now closely scrutinized by CSOs and political parties, leading to significantly greater transparency and accountability. Mechanisms have been put in place for consultation between the Council, citizens and CSOs on major policy decisions. For example, in 2001 and 2002, the Council embarked on a process of public consultations and hearings on budget-making and priority-setting. Whilst these were well-attended by political parties and CSOs, the absence of business is cause for concern. CSOs, business and the Council are working quite effectively together on other key issues, including crime prevention, service provision, improvement of the urban environment, arts and culture events, small enterprise issues, and general promotion of the city within and outside South Africa.


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