Where is civil society post-election?

2011-03-15 00:00

PARTISANSHIP in the run-up to and during elections may undermine the critical role of civil society in ensuring that the greater interests of society are not reduced to party-political games.

As political parties release their manifestos and aggressively pursue voters, the space that civil society formations occupy post-election shrinks into partisan spaces.

Political parties are designed to organise interest groups into platforms for use in challenging for or consolidating state power. The ANC, IFP, DA, NFP, Cope and so forth represent these platforms distinguished by histories, backgrounds, political cultures, value systems, public perceptions and individuals who lead them. They build their constituencies in communities on the basis of one or a combination of these variables. In South Africa's case, the distinction in policy agenda is very small. The promises are the same.

This point is important to bear in mind as we think about which party to vote for during the up-coming local government elections. As a political analyst, I am often asked by ordinary people what the real differences are between the parties that are now lobbying for their votes in May.

There are two related points to be made in answering this question. The first is that citizens should treat political-party talk with circumspection as all political parties will do everything in their power to win votes, including twisting the truth to project themselves as angels and others as demons.

People must understand that all political parties have weaknesses and none of them have sufficient capacity to turn local government around on their own. They thus cannot provide citizens with enough information to make intelligent choices.

The second point is that citizens need assistance from civic structures to make sense of the sometimes confusing flow of information during electioneering so that they can arrive at an informed choice. There must be a vibrant civil society, capable of conducting civic and political education, citizen empowerment and technical support for voters. Mature political parties work closely with civil society to rebuild communities. Without this, citizens rely on dominant political parties for electoral information. They will not be educated on the importance of democracy, the workings of local government systems and laws, rights and responsibilities and opportunities for citizen participation. This sort of stuff does not win quick votes.

The elections are the only opportunity for political parties to win votes and acquire state power. So political parties pull out all the stops to maintain or increase their votes. They are likely to intensify their contact with ordinary people and are more inclined to listen to the people's needs and aspirations during this period.

This is a worldwide phenomenon. This is the problem with what we call electoral democracy. But a desirable social democracy requires a more sustained engagement between leaders and citizens, an interface that enables leaders to refresh their mandate constantly. In the absence of this, citizens feel betrayed and turn to violent protests to demand space for dialogue.

The decline of civic structures over the years has left a huge void in many poor communities. Street and development committees have disappeared in many communities. Although local-level NGOs remain in place, the culture of service delivery means that they are now focused on the provision of welfare services rather than advocacy. Social movements are few and issue-driven.

Political parties' own community-level structures have declined and weakened over the years, meaning they cannot deliver the promise to engage. Relatively vibrant community structures exist in well-to-do suburbs and other places where the rich live.

Citizens cannot, however, stay away from elections because of the tendency of all parties to forget them afterwards. They must exercise their right to vote. But then they must rebuild community structures and remain vigilant to sustain political-party interest between elections.

They must organise not just to protest, but also for self-help and demand to be heard through petitions and open letters. Protests should be the last resort, otherwise politicians will become so desensitised that they will start to ignore or suppress them.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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