4 Challenges Facing Civil Society in the New South Africa

2013-09-10 18:31

My understanding of civil society organisations, prior to working at one for a short while, has been limited. In fact, I would argue that my relationship with them has, if anything, been distrusting. I don’t like people that are “apolitical” but then concern themselves with political things. It is a prejudice I carry with me from my days in student government.

However, as I reflect elsewhere, my experience at the Helen Suzman Foundation provided me with an enhanced insight into, and appreciation of, civil society, and the challenges it faces. Most importantly, it also allowed me to truly appreciate the role that civil society organisations (CSOs) can play in the new South Africa. Like their historical role, CSOs have a similar role to play in diversifying and influencing the public discourse of a democratic South Africa.

Ironically, some of the problems faced by CSOs today are as a result of the democratisation they historically sought to achieve. Not only were many prominent figures from civil society co-opted into the ANC (or the political establishment more generally), many CSOs considered that with the creation of formal political equality, all was achieved. The effect of this “decapitation” and surrendering of their agency was compounded particularly during the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki, when the ANC was at an all-time high and its formal political opposition had little or no effect on policy.

In theory, although experience has shown this is not always the case, a strong civil society has the ability to make the government more accountable and, when it applies its energies in a targeted fashion, can influence narrative, policy and outcome. The work of the Helen Suzman Foundation on the Hawks and the Treatment Action Campaign on Nevirapine and antiretrovirals are two examples which illustrate the great potential that CSOs represent.

Cynics like me realise that CSOs have a greater ability to influence (political) things because they are not in direct competition with whichever party they seek to challenge. Often, political parties are willing to, and do, listen because listening, and changing tack, does not mean conceding to the opposition’s agenda (regrettably, this aspect of politics is always framed as a zero-sum game).

However, when there is alignment between a CSO and the opposition (even if it is coincidental), then CSOs may also face the same kind of opprobrium reserved for political opponents. Indeed, even if the opposition is slow on the uptake and does not share the CSO’s outlook, if it does anything considered to “embarrass” the ruling party (i.e. make it hurt politically), it may still find itself out of favour.

The answer is, however, not to back down, but to stiffen one’s resolve and utilise every mechanism available in order to achieve the intended outcome. Cooperation and being conciliatory has its place: the easiest way to achieve positive results is through non-confrontational means. But platitudes do not change policy, and in those cases “conflict” may be the only viable option. It takes a truly committed CSO and visionary leadership for it to take the difficult path for the sake of the cause.

These are 4 (of the many) challenges that CSOs face:

1. Think Like a CEO, Act Like a CSO

The perception that CSOs are the “soft option,” and that corporate governance standards and the bottom line don’t matter, is wholly incorrect. Notwithstanding the dependence of CSO employees on the survival of their employers, in order to achieve on their primary mandate, CSOs need to keep financing in mind so they can offer competitive remuneration to attract and retain the best skills. But unlike businesses, CSOs do not produce tangible goods that can be sold. In a consumption-driven economy that is more materialistic than it is ideas-based, this is a problem. Running finances (expenditure, fundraising, diversification and so on) like a CEO, therefore, is even more important.

2. Find a Niche

CSOs need to keep a sharp focus on what it is they do and how they will deliver it. The temptation to expand is great but there are many considerations which should disincentivize meaningless expansion. First, there’s the money (see above). Second, expansion comes at the risk of diluting the brand’s (and the CSO’s) core message. Becoming synonymous with a single issue (and dealing with it in a multifaceted way), i.e. being the “industry leader” in business terms, is preferable to dealing with too many things at once. The difference can be thought of in hunting terms: the one is the targeted bulls-eye shot that is devastating, or taking the shrapnel approach, where the hope is that something worthy is hit in the end.

3. Get Out the Message

Political parties are a useful case study. They have slick communications machines that seek to deliberately get their message in the public domain. Working the news rooms, sending out press statements, maintaining an up-to-date website, Facebook page and Twitter account are no longer considered cutting edge, but are essential to the communications system of any CSO organisation. Remember, the ideas are the products you need to build the brand and grow the CSO’s reach. If no one knows what you are doing, you may as well not be doing it.

4. Build New Networks

Much like group-think, one of the other things CSOs need to be wary of is not building new networks. Relying on the same contacts, or the same funders and supporters, is another way to make you irrelevant. Not only does your core constituency grow older and ultimately die (ask political parties that rely on the a particular set of people), you also limit yourself from accessing other demographic constituencies that could add more money, credence and relevance to your organisation. Importantly, doing things simply because “that is the way they have always been done” is not an excuse to not innovate.

CSOs are vital to the strength of South Africa’s democracy. Without them we are poorer as a thinking nation. Hopefully this helps.


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