Mirror to truth: Protesters from the Right to Know Campaign hold placards in protest against the secrecy bill tabled in Parliament earlier this year. Picture: Jennifer Bruce

What constitutes civil society? It is certainly not restricted to NGOs. Civil society includes welfare, education at all levels, health, environment, the arts, gender rights and much more.

All over South Africa there are remarkable women and men working with orphans, HIV/Aids sufferers, alleviating poverty, feeding hungry children, caring for the sick, educating the young.

These actions, some small while others large, are part of civil society. Some are independent, others in partnership with the state at local, provincial and national level. This wider definition should never be overlooked; they are part of what keeps the fabric of our common society intact.

There is also a more narrow definition – civil organisations which seek to influence policy, which offer alternatives and which resist and criticise undemocratic policies and laws.

A few examples of organisations which have successfully taken on the state with a measure of success include the Treatment Action Campaign, the Right to Know Campaign, the Social Justice Coalition and a number of organisations that have been at the forefront of demanding truth and transparency concerning the arms deal.

There are many other examples. Suffice to say, the importance of civil society can never be underestimated.

Civil society does its work under difficult circumstances. But I want to take you back to South Africa under apartheid. Civil society – and especially human rights NGOs – were under constant threat of closure.

They were also subject to harassment, the planting of informers, legislation to forbid funding from overseas sources, breaking up of peaceful marches and constant surveillance by security police.

Despite all this, NGOs were active, daring and resilient. Most of these organisations were essentially anti-apartheid and it was not surprising that many went out of existence in 1994.

During the next several years civil society was relatively dormant. The official apartheid policy was expunged from the statute book and it looked as if South Africa would become a free and democratic society. Fortunately, we have woken up to the fact that power corrupts and there is need for continuous vigilance.

Despite the governing party’s bluster and intense dislike of much of civil society, we are today living in a more open society. Offices are not broken up and staff are not detained or imprisoned. This is largely due to our constitution and our Bill of Rights – and that is why we must safeguard our constitution with every fibre of our being.

Just as civil society was important under the apartheid state, it is equally important under a failing state. Wherever we look, we see the signs of a failing state: education, health, safety and security, unemployment, lack of housing and basic facilities, Marikana, inefficiency, mismanagement, jobs for pals, corruption in the public service and at every level of government.

The greed displayed by government officials can only be described as obscene.

Auditor-General Terence Nombembe recently said that public officials at local, provincial and national levels simply ignore adverse audit reports, and repeat offenders are the order of the day. A culture of impunity has become entrenched in our public service for the past 18 years.

How has this come about? Many of us had such high hopes after the 1994 election. No one will dispute the valiant and costly struggle displayed by the ANC. Their sacrifice will forever put us in their debt.

However, there are ominous signs there are those within the ANC leadership who want power at all cost. This is contrary to the spirit of democracy and the rule of law. But the signs are there: criticism of the Constitutional Court by President Jacob Zuma, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, Blade Nzimande and others; and criticism of and veiled threats to the media.

Against a power-hungry state, civil society is called to play an ever-increasing role in combating this slide towards a one-party state. But there are disturbing facts and figures which indicate that civil society is playing a diminishing role as a watchdog.

The South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference recently issued a briefing paper which reminds us that a few years ago Idasa, the Black Sash, the Human Rights Committee, the SA Council of Churches and The Legal Resources Centre were involved in parliamentary advocacy. None of these offices now exist. Many organisations are in serious trouble.

Recent figures show that 2 968 permanent jobs, 1 509 contract jobs, 499 part-time jobs and 2 165 volunteers have been shelved. All were involved in civil society activities and have left a void.

The survey also reported that 44 percent of organisations report funding cuts of up to 50 percent; 24 percent report funding cuts up to 80 percent; 11 percent report funding cuts in excess of 80 percent; 17,5 percent say they have no funding.

Only 30 percent have enough funding to cover one month’s expenses, 35,8 percent have enough funding to cover six months’ operating expenses and 16,7 percent have more than six months’ operating expenses.

Despite retrenchments and scarce funding, the challenge to civil society has to be met as best as possible. Transparency, good management, sound financial controls, realisable goals and modest remuneration must be the order of the day. Everything we demand of the government must be reflected in our work and performance.

Two concluding quotes. The first from Oliver Goldsmith, who in The Deserted Village wrote: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay.” He wrote this in 1770 but he could be describing South Africa today.

The second is from Desmond Tutu: “To me, civil society is at the core of human nature. We human beings want to get together with others… and act collectively to make our lives better. And when we face evils and injustice, we get together and fight for justice and peace.”

There is our dilemma: our unequal society and a government that is either unwilling or unable to govern in order to bring about transformation. And here is our hope: “When we face evils and injustice, we get together and fight for justice and peace.”

l Dr Alex Boraine is the former executive director of Idasa, and deputy chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This is an edited version of his address to the Goedgedacht Forum for Social Reflection’s recent conference, “Improving the Relationship between the State and Civil Society in South Africa”.