South Africa : The Case for Strategic Coalition Building in Civil Society

There can be no doubt that since 1994 (non-corporate) progressive civil society organisations (CSOs) in South Africa, despite serious organisational and resource challenges alongside an often hostile government and corporate sector, have achieved a great deal.

A combination of localised community-based organisations, broader sectoral and/or issue-based social movements, progressive NGOs, some unions as well as variety of other immigrant, religious, youth, LGBTI (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual/intersex) and women’s groups have all contributed to, amongst others : the maintenance of a lively democratic culture ; the defence and advancement of crucial human and constitutional rights ; confronting the abuse of political and economic power ; and struggling for practical alternatives to the societal status quo.

We must, rightfully, recognise and celebrate these achievements. However, if there has been one glaring strategic weakness it is to be found in the general absence of broad-based civil society coalitions wherein a wide range of CSOs work together for a clearly identified and common strategic purpose that has the declared intent and practical potential to shift dominant power relations in our society and thus also, the structure and exercise of power.

The genesis of this strategic weakness can be found in the ways and environment in which progressive civil society in South Africa developed from the late 1980s onwards. During this early transitional period, most all such CSOs operated on and were organised around, distinct political and organisational ‘lines’, most often tied to one or another of the strands within the broad liberation movement.

From 1990, when the ANC ‘returned home’ as the dominant liberation organisation it proceeded to encourage and facilitate the demobilisation and systematic incorporation of, most of those CSOs into its own organisational structures and or allied coalitions (e.g. SANCO). In turn, in the immediate aftermath of the ANC’s ascension to state power in April 1994, many activists within what had previously constituted a fairly broad-based progressive civil society were absorbed into the new state.

Soon, the ANC (and the state it now controlled) set-up national structures to give institutional form to its corporatist commitments. The National Economic, Development & Labour Council (NEDLAC) was formed where, alongside its labour and corporate capital components, ‘civil society’ was represented by a ‘development chamber’ (consisting of chosen CSOs). Almost simultaneously, legislation such as the Non-Profit Act of 1997 was passed and institutions set-up like the Directorate of Non-Profit Organisations and the National Development Agency, to further institutionalise, manage and ‘support’ civil society.

This effective sanitising of civil society was only further reinforced by the post-1994 crisis of funding that confronted most independent community organisations and progressive NGOs who were largely dependent on donor funding. Both domestic and foreign donor funding took a radical turn away from previous commitments to independent grassroots mobilisation and struggles and towards state-directed ‘developmental’ programmes and state-sponsored social welfare ‘partnerships’ with approved civil society organisations. The more immediate dual result was a ‘development agenda’ increasingly driven by state and private (corporate) donor funding and the slow death of the vast majority of independent civil society organisations.

The net practical result was a serious loss of both civil society space and place for any sustained and collective macro-systemic engagement and contestation of the state at the institutional and policy levels. What then (not surprisingly) arose from the mid-late 1990s were a new set of sectorally focused, issue-based CSOs whose strategic purpose was largely oriented towards demanding and/or filling respective governance and delivery ‘gaps’.

Possibilities for broader coalition building and action were further undermined by the often virulently hostile response of the state (alongside the ANC itself) to the largely defensive democratic thrust and public activities of these new set of progressive CSOs. In a classic example of divide-and-rule tactics, civil society was labelled (and treated) as either ‘good’ or bad’ depending on its approach and relationship to the state/ANC and engagement with the dominant developmental model.

While significant aspects of this ‘mid-transition battle’ still exist, the last few years have borne out how such tactics can come back to bite the ‘instigator’ ; in the process, providing the perfect recipe for incubating the unprecedented levels of political opportunism, demagoguery, greed and corruption that are now so prevalent within both the government and corporate arenas.

Conjoined to the virtual explosion of independent worker and community protests alongside the general crisis-ridden nature of South Africa’s political economy, there now exists new spaces and places for progressive civil society to reclaim a unity of strategic purpose and action.

As South Africa’s own history has shown, the best vehicle for doing so, are broad coalitions. This can allow organisational linkages to be made, tactical commonalities to be found and most crucially, the realisation of a collective approach to engaging and challenging skewed power relations and shifting the structure and exercise of power. After all, is it not the core, longer-term ‘mission’ of such CSOs to change society, not just its component parts ?

Effective and sustained coalitions demand the charting of a new strategic path of civil society activism and collective solidarity. Such a path can only be realised with the confident assertion of a dynamic, organic independence which moves beyond the historical lacuna of party politics and prescribed civil society niches’ and is rooted in practical grassroots struggles of the majority. Further, that encompasses a local, national and international character which engages/targets both the state and capital and which seeks to effect a broader societal change of consciousness.

There are encouraging signs that such coalitions are beginning to emerge although they remain in their strategic infancy, having yet to fully break through long-standing organisational divisions, regionalism, narrow struggle identities, ideological differences and widely varying relationships with institutionalised political and economic power. An incipient example is the relatively young Right2Know Campaign which has practically shown that it is possible to bring together both the individual and collective strengths of different activists and organisations in a strategic partnership that cuts across a narrow issue base and links various civil society organisational forms and struggle content.

Strategic coalition building can provide much-needed impetus for creating a formidable collection of progressive forces in struggle and forging a practical commonality for linked work/activism. Failure on this front will condemn progressive civil society to a future of self-marginalisation and constructed isolation.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.