As South Africa celebrates Freedom Day, civil society organisations have increasingly become the last line of defence against corruption, service delivery failure and abuse of power by elected and public representatives.
The power of civil society has been demonstrated by its part in helping to force out two ANC presidents since 1994 - Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, when they behaved undemocratically. Civil society mobilised for a long time against Zuma, for his involvement in alleged corruption, self-enrichment and the collapse of public services.
It was its consistent mobilisation that compelled many ANC members and leaders to act against Zuma and many other elected leaders and public servants alleged to have been involved in corruption.
Mbeki faced long-running civil society opposition to his refusal to make HIV/Aids medicine available at public hospitals. Mbeki’s critics mobilised to prevent him from being re-elected at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference.
Civil society has provided public services in many instances of public service delivery failure across the country. In fact, without civil society providing public services, the public service delivery crisis would be far worse, with more violent protests.
Civil society has used the constitution, the bill of rights and judiciary to press for democratic rights and public services for the poor, vulnerable and excluded. Civil society organisations, such as Section 27, took up the fight on behalf of families when 140 mentally ill patients, because of negligence by the Gauteng provincial health department, who moved them to the care of NGOs without the skills, funds or resources to look after them, died.
Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who chaired the arbitration hearings into the deaths, ordered the Gauteng Department of Health pay R1.2million in damages to each of the families who lost a loved one during the tragedy. Civil society has pushed for the implementation of critical socio-economic rights, such as the right to housing, health, food and social welfare, which had not fully been realised.
In 2000, the Legal Resources Centre and a group of civil society organisations, in what is now referred to as the Grootboom case, successfully petitioned the courts to order government to provide housing “for people with no access to land”. Civil society groups such as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) had spent decades successfully fighting for access to HIV treatment.
TAC has also pioneered for patient-treatment education. “Civil society brought the notion for the first time that people living with HIV should be consulted and should be part of planning,” said Mark Heywood, one of the leaders of the TAC.
Civil society organisations have gone to court to challenge lack of public service delivery. Section27 in 2012 secured a court order from the North Gauteng High Court compelling the Limpopo provincial government to urgently deliver outstanding textbooks to schools, on a delivery time-line and a backlog catch-up plan.
Some civil society organisations have managed to get laws struck off because they are unconstitutional. The shack-dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo in 2009 successfully petitioned the Constitutional Court to have a section of a provincial law, Section 16 of the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Act, declared in contravention of the constitution.
Civil society organisations have gone to court to challenge corruption. The Black Sash, which fought human rights abuses during apartheid, took Social Development minister Bathabile Dlamini to court for irregularly using a company with ties to governing ANC leaders to pay social grants to the poor on behalf of government. The Constitutional Court called for a public inquiry to investigate irregularities in the contract - which is currently taking place.
Where corrupt police and prosecutors have been reluctant to probe, ordinary citizens and civil groups have gone to court to compel them to do so.
In 2016, the civil society group Freedom Under Law took the Deputy National Director of Public Prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba and the National Prosecuting Authorities Commercial Crime Unit head Lawrence Mrwebi, to court for allegedly squashing corruption investigations of Zuma and allies, manipulating law enforcement agencies and targeting officials investigating corrupt activities of people allied to Zuma. The High Court in Pretoria found Jiba and Mrwebi were not “fit and proper” to hold office. The court ordered them to be struck off the rolls as advocates.
Civil society has encouraged whistleblowing, in a society which traditionally frowns on the practice. Last year, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) encouraged whistleblowers to speak to it in confidence to report incidents of corruption in a safe space.
South African civil society has also fought hard to change archaic sexist, homophobic and racist attitudes which go against the constitution.
On July 7, 2007, two lesbians, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa were murdered in Meadowlands, Soweto, for being gay. In April 2008, Eudy Simelane, a player for the national women’s football team Banyana Banyana, was murdered for being a lesbian.
South Africa has liberal laws on gender equality, freedom of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage. However, prejudiced attitudes prevail, undermining these rights. For example, there is still widespread belief that “corrective rape” of lesbian women would “cure” them.
Civil society mobilised against the deaths of Sigasa, Masooa and Simelane. Civil society launched the “07-07-07 Campaign”, to fight homophobia. As Emily Craven, the co-ordinator of the campaign wrote that the initiative forced courts to acknowledge homophobia as a motive in murders of lesbian women, and led to the creation of the National Task Team on LGBTIQ Hate Crimes.
South African civil society has for many years opposed the Traditional Courts Bill first introduced in Parliament in 2008, and which directly affects more than 14 million rural South Africans. The bill undermines gender equality, deprives women and rural citizens of their constitutional rights, and makes traditional leaders “more equal” than ordinary citizens.
It essentially formally introduces two legal systems in South Africa: one the formal constitution, democratic institutions and values such as gender equality, which would be applicable to those living in urban areas; and customary law, where women are less equal than men.
Traditional leaders have super powers, and rural dwellers under the jurisdiction of the traditional courts cannot access the rights in the democratic constitution, laws and values.
Civil society has embarked on awareness campaigns in the rural areas explaining to vast numbers of illiterate rural dwellers on how the bill will decimate their basic constitutional rights.
Civil society opposition has blocked the passage of the bill. South African civil society groups, such as Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei), have tenuously fought government’s attempt to build new nuclear power stations, embark on nuclear procurement in secret without public consultation and to make information related to the nuclear building programme publicly available.
Civil society organisations have for years called for accountability in South Africa’s multi-billion arms procurement deal concluded in 1999, and which was officially known as the Strategic Defence Package or the Strategic Defence Acquisition, which involved the purchase of $4.8bn weaponry from US and European arms manufacturers.
South Africa’s model constitution gives a special place for civil society to play an oversight role over democratic institutions, monitor human rights and to give citizens, especially the poor, vulnerable and excluded, the tools to know and assert their rights. Without civil society organisations, the rollback of democratic rights over the past few years would have been much worse.
* Gumede is Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation; and author of South Africa in BRICS, Tafelberg