Christi van der Westhuizen
Christi van der Westhuizen

Suspicion-mongering to discredit critical civil society

Cynicism permeated the atmosphere at Parliament’s latest round of public hearings on the Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB), ringing alarm bells about increasing hostility emanating from parliamentarians towards civil society.

While the interaction should be rigorous, as different views are tested, the mere hosting of public hearings should not in itself be contentious in a democracy.

Parliament has become diligent in arranging such consultations after the Constitutional Court had to refer laws back to the legislators in the past due to insufficient public consultation.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to escape the impression that Parliament wants to be seen to be hosting public hearings, instead of ensuring substantive consultation as part of democracy in action.

This has especially been a problem with politically driven laws, such as that scrapping the Scorpions and, presently, the POSIB.

MPs exhibited unprecedented animosity towards representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) during the National Assembly’s public hearings on the POSIB last year.

Now it seems that a pattern of obstructionist behaviour has marred the National Council of Provinces’ countrywide public hearings on the bill. The Right2Know (R2K) campaign has gathered affidavits indicating that members of the public were cut short or harassed when they voiced opposition to the Bill.

R2K has also sought clarification about Parliament paying for transport for selected people to attend the hearings. Are some South Africans more deserving of participation in parliamentary processes than others?

ANC MP Ruth Bengu’s statement earlier this year comes to mind. She prevented the posing of questions in Parliament drafted by what she called “the class of NGOs calling themselves civil society”.

In 2008, ANC MP Mtikeni Sibande gave this suspicion about some NGOs a racial twist when he criticised assistance to victims of the xenophobic attacks.

He declared that “our leadership must alert our security institutions about the so-called NGOs that are operated by unknown whites in those affected areas, because we don’t need people who are instruments of imperialism.”

His statement resonates with Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele’s accusation last year about civil society being “proxies for foreign agents”, a claim repeated by ANC supporters at the hearings.

Another charge came from SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin writing in Umsebenzi Online that civil society formations are “unaccountable … and yet they are those who claim the task of holding the state to account”.

Cronin, quoting a Brazilian sociologist, specifically objected to civil society “representatives” that “tend” not to be transparent about the election of their leaders, origins of funds and forms of decision-making.

Such charges can be traced to former ANC president Nelson Mandela’s address at the party’s national conference in Mafikeng in 1997.

Mandela declared that “many of our non-governmental organisations are not in fact NGOs, both because they have no popular base and the actuality that they rely on domestic and foreign governments, rather than the people, for their material sustenance … We will have to consider the reliability of such NGOs to achieve (people-driven social transformation).”

Should we therefore also be suspicious of the government itself? It will receive, for example, €980-million during 2007-2013 from the European Union, which includes former colonial powers and, one could argue, pursues neo-colonial policies today.

Some of that money goes to civil society but the vast proportion is allocated to government programmes. By last year €580-million had been committed, “mainly through budget support programmes” that included employment, education and healthcare. Does this mean the government is pursuing a “foreign agenda” in these sectors?

The notion of “foreign agendas” is questionable in itself. Is it being suggested that a principle such as government accountability has been “imported”, as though it is the exclusive property of the North? Such a suggestion would be a slap in the face of every African who has ever agitated for social justice.

It seems curious that foreign funding of NGOs would be a problem now, given that progressive forces depended on foreign funding during the apartheid era, much to the chagrin of the National Party regime.

Apart from lip service, the ANC has ignored calls for a law to be passed to compel political parties to reveal their funding sources.

In contrast, information about NGOs’ funding sources is “generally commonly” available, according to Shelagh Gastrow, executive director of the South African Institute of Advancement, Inyathelo.

Some 85000 NGOs are voluntarily registered with the Department of Social Development, which requires them to submit annual financial statements to the department.

Furthermore, the Non-Profit Organisations Act of 1997 prescribes that a registered organisation has to draw up a constitution that specifies its governance and decision-making mechanisms.

NGOs worth their salt do not deny that structural limitations exist that hinder participation in parliamentary processes.

Samantha Waterhouse, who runs the Community Law Centre’s parliamentary programme, says that parliamentary submissions are usually made by better-resourced NGOs, with community-based organisations (CBOs) lacking the necessary capacity.

Moreover, a CLC study found that NGOs are much more active in legislative processes than in monitoring Parliament. NGOs therefore devote more resources to the improvement of legislation than to ensuring government accountability.

Waterhouse believes one way to ameliorate these shortcomings is for NGOs to form alliances, which would assist less-resourced organisations in having their voices heard in parliamentary processes.

R2K has made a point of assisting smaller CBOs to participate in the public consultation on the POSIB. But, despite these efforts, the NCOP committee working on the Bill still excluded these groups. Again a case of them not being “reliable” civil society representatives?

Christi van der Westhuizen is a journalist and an author. This monthly column, which first appeared in The Star, Cape Times, Mercury and Pretoria News, is made available by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa to monitor the health of our democracy.

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  • So what exactly DID happen?
  • Pandora’s box has opened…again!
  • The weakness of the ANC
  • Part 6 of 6: Speeches
    • Dave Harris

      Why would any of our parliamentarians be hostile towards the very society that elects them? Aren’t are elected to carry out the will of the majority and isn’t the POSIB a true reflection of that will. The passage of this democratically passed bill has been further delayed by a call for public hearings by a vocal minority who still have great difficulty grasping the basic of how democratic processes work.

      The Right2Know, bankrolled by corporate interest groups, seek to make a mockery of the democracy with their usual legal shenanigans and delaying tactics, oblivious of the security vulnerabilities to our country in the absence of such an important bill.

      The fact that most NGOs in developing world serve as “on the ground agents” for ex-colonial powers, World Bank etc. – the real source of corruption in Africa. This is why even Obama urged African leaders to put away their begging bowls. btw. I don’t remember any NGOs providing arms to the ANC during our liberation struggle. It was business as usual for the NGOs and many multi-nationals during Ronald Reagan’s disingenuous policy of “constructive engagement” Also, most NGOs involved in charities are almost scams where most of the foreign aid is sucked up in “overhead” leaving very little actually going into the hands of voiceless impoverished. Nope, the track record of charities in the developing world over centuries sure isn’t a pretty…

    • The Creator

      Can’t help noticing that this article has been widely recycled by its author — as I discovered when trying to check some of the quotes in it.

      And the author works for Idasa and is funded by the Open Society Foundation, so it’s sort of like asking President Assad for a frank discussion about Syrian politics.

      Snide remarks aside, the difference between the government receiving donor funding from abroad and NGOs receiving donor funding from abroad is that we can demand that the government be transparent about it, and many entities exist to monitor that. NGOs tend to be a lot more opaque.

      Then there’s the obvious fact that NGOs often tend to share the agendas of their funders. If you’re funded by a billionaire hedge-fund operator with close ties to the U.S. State Department, just how intellectually independent are you, really?

      And, again, NGOs often tend to meddle in domestic politics. It ain’t paranoid to want to keep an eye on foreign-funded political actors who might be either engaged in espionage or disinformation.

      Lastly, why be surprised that the ANC hates some NGOs? A lot of NGOs return the favour, don’t they?

    • Chamberlain

      The basic problem is SA is not really a parliamentary democracy, in the normal sense. SA is a party state controlled by deployed cadres who represent the elite inner circle in the political class. Read the comments on the ‘deep state’ in Business Day – and the nexus between the political elite, organised crime, corrupt capital, and dark horses in the security services who are intent on creating the classic Mafia state. Hence the charade of going through a ‘public consultation’ process whilst demonising those who hold any opinions at all. SA is a party state governed by the elite, for the elite. Parliament is about as meaningful as the Reichstag after the Enabling Act.

    • Chamberlain

      And the ridiculous comment from ‘Dave Harris’ shows just how far from a democracy SA is – society does not elect parliamentarians, the totalitarian party deploys them on the whim of party bosses. SA is at serious risk of becoming a failed democracy, and even a failed state at some stage. God protect the citizens from totalitarian parties and fascist propaganda.

    • Ban ki Moon

      I am interested in the quote from ANC president Nelson Mandela’s address at the party’s national conference in Mafikeng in 1997. It is interesting, because it does not fit the popular belief of openness, transparency, freedom of speech and thought, willingness to contest ideas, valuing of debate, and social democracy, glasnost and humanitarianism that once associates with the revered icon. So legends are often revisited over time, and new perspectives emerge. Did the Titanic break apart on the surface, or sink in once piece? A simple analogy.

    • Benzo

      The ANC has the power to send all NGO’s back to where they come from via visa regulations and financial controls on incoming funds.

      If half of the above accusations are true, why not stop all these “bloody agents” from operating in SA? I am sure that our intelligence service is right on the heels of these operations.

      Or are we again listening to some preconceived and never ending generalised “bed time stories for adults”.

    • Benzo

      Or….do we see a general loss of trust between our parliament, government and society at large?

    • Peter Joffe

      “Why would any of our parliamentarians be hostile towards the very society that elects them?” The reason is very simple if you take into account that many of our present leading ministers were trained in The USSR and believe in the absolute power of the ruling party. We have a one party state and criticism is not tolerated. After all the majority voted for a one party dictatorship and that is what we have. Karl Marx believed not only in the evolution of the races and societies but also that history was invariable on his side. So his political adversaries were treated as reactionaries (how often have we heard that from the ANC) who deserved to be punished for retarding the march of humanity in the direction of classless (and lawless) society. Marx also taught that laws were basically to guarantee and justify class oppression, thus advancing the position that laws in a socialist state must be no more than the imposition (by a political elite) of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat”. In every communist regime around the world the attempt to enforce the Marxist dream of equality and wealth has led to the gross inequality of power and to the “equality of poverty” amongst the masses.
      Such concepts deem that the most powerful people to be the ultimate arbiters of what is right and what is wrong.
      Does this ring any alarm bells on what the ANC is doing and all that is mentioned in the article under discussion??

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      All over Africa black communist governmants are hostile to the NGOs.

    • beachcomber

      Perhaps the term “democracy” should be re-defined in countries (like South Africa) where the currently accepted definition that the leaders of the state are elected and follow the desires and aspirations of the majority apply only on paper.

      South Africa seems headed towards being a self-serving kleptocracy with delusions of paranoia built on the basis of tribal hegemony.

    • MLH

      Ours is a facist state. We just don’t want to come to terms with that.

    • Bernard K Hellberg

      And what’s the diffence between BEE in all its various forms and guises – and the Nazis with their “Kauft nicht bei Juden” approach?

      Or are the BEE beneficiaries incapable of starting up on their own – even with massive regime support?

    • Rory Short

      Power corrupts is a well known axiom. Sadly it seems to hold true for the ANC in its present guise just as it held true for the Nats of old. All arms of civil society have to exercise constant vigilance in order to try to nip these tendencies to corruption in the bud. Zimbabwean civil society failed abysmally in this regard and look at the consequences of that failure for members of civil society there, many of them are now having to live in other countries.

    • Tofolux

      South Africa’s has a very rich and long history of strong civil groups. This is borne by the fact that during the struggle years, when certain political parties were banned, it was the civil and civic groups in our communities who mobilised us. It was the civil groups who campaigned unselfishly with extremely limited resources. A case in point is the formation of UDF. If one looks at this history it makes an illogical argument that former activists wouild not understand the role and relevance of civil groups. One would imagine that after 1994, these groupings would occupy a serious space which would add value to all communities. But lets be honest, civil society today is failing us. In fact, it is an important question, Whom do they represent? It is a fact that groupings calling themselves civil society is none other than ‘cherry-pickers’ who represent the interest of minorities groupings.It is also a fact that some of these groupings have a direct relationship with the DA. It doesnt take a fool to see that the rights that are being protect is juxtaposed against the rights of the majority. Everyone agrees that we NEED the POIB. The main issue that these groups have, are about the scope of processes and interests and their claim that the roles and responsibilites of various stakeholders are unclear. These are the presentations that they made in NCOP. These jekyll and hyde groupings do not represeny any of my interests and I would venture to say to them NOT IN MY BACKYARD.

    • david hurst

      It was surprising to see protests over housing provided free by an NGO, signs proclaiming “NGO’s out!”, simply because there were only enough free houses to go to half of the people. Such ignorance is reflected in members of the Party feeling threatened by anyone they do not control, a fear of being upstaged easily no doubt, but also a fear that absolute power of an essentially single party state, based on clear communist doctrine of its manifesto, may even be questioned. Those colonial ‘agents’ will stop at nothing. Rather than tend to the nations’ problems, it becomes protect the Party and our power at all costs, this is how we will spend our time. Retro-communism and blatant authoritarian legislation go hand-in hand with ignoring the Judiciary, packing it with Party donkeys, taking aim at a constitution that is in their way, is today’s ANC. Comments regarding kleptocracy and mafia are strong enough to have become worldwide opinion. There is no democracy within the ANC, decisions are behind closed doors and soon subject to secrecy laws even as a free press self-censors itself. Power is such, that it can be out in the open that there is no difference between ZANU-PF brothers and the ANC. There is no concern for openness of discussion, nor for driving the economy into the ground; “economic freedom” promised by those who do nothing for the country, and will do nothing, but what it takes to stay and engineer crude autocracy and totalitarianism. The ANC has…

    • Brent

      Hey Dave Harris, ‘bald face lying’ again, check the following;

      “It seems curious that foreign funding of NGOs would be a problem now, given that progressive forces depended on foreign funding during the apartheid era, much to the chagrin of the National Party regime. FACT

      Apart from lip service, the ANC has ignored calls for a law to be passed to compel political parties to reveal their funding sources. FACT

      In contrast, information about NGOs’ funding sources is “generally commonly” available, according to Shelagh Gastrow, executive director of the South African Institute of Advancement, Inyathelo.” FACT

      I have read good detailed accounts and stories of how funding was secretly obtained from Western countries during Apartheid to everyones joy, so how come this source of funding (no longer secret but open) is now suspect? BET YOU WONT ANSWER THIS QUESTION. What about the secret funding of the ANC nowdays, Dave surely you would want to know where it comes from to make sure it is not from some evil foreign power to exert undue influence???? The current bill is to make sure no one finds out, so there must be something to hide!!! The ANC gets more and more like the evil Nats of old.


    • Graham Johnson

      Dave Harris clearly works for the M&G because his comments come so quickly after the original article is published on so many occasions.

      Still, let him be. I enjoy a good laugh. The total lack of objectivity in any of his comments provides endless amusement among my peers.

    • Dave Harris

      Firstly, tagging your opinions with “FACT” does not necessarily make it so. LOL
      Secondly, I don’t remember the ANC’s armed struggle being funded by NGOs
      Thirdly, this isn’t about funding sources, since we all know who funds NGOs in Africa. Its about the NGO’s fronting for ex-colonial powers under the guise of “charity”.
      Fourthly, Shelagh Gastrow simply acts as a mouthpiece for our media mafia. Here she jumps to the defense of Jonathan Shapiro’s gang-rape cartoons.
      Lastly, the corruptive influence of ex-colonial powers in our 2009 elections can be clearly seen when Madam Zille was suddenly elected as the “World Best Mayor” by the usual suspects. This is direct interference in the electoral process of a sovereign nation!

    • Reducto

      I wouldn’t describe Zille as the world’s best anything, but my goodness Harris you are reaching new levels of ridiculousness. If someone wants to create an organisation and hand out prizes, that is their business. It does not amount to “direct interference in the electoral process of a sovereign nation”. Do you even realise just how silly you sound making such an outlandish claim?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      If you want to talk about people giving themselves awards – what about the recent award Zuma gave to Zuma for settling the conflict in Kwa-Zulu Natal between the ANC and the IFP?

      Which township war the ANC Third Force,Operation Vula, led by Zuma, started in the first place? (ref: “People’s War”)

    • Dave Harris

      So you see nothing wrong if these foreign agencies suddenly create these sham awards and it splashed across our headlines by mainstream media locally and internationally just before the 2009 elections? This shows your blind-spot to the corruptive influence of ex-colonial powers on Africa.

      Now can you imagine if the Pope awarded some prize like “World’s Most Devout Christian” to Obama or Zuma got the award for “World’s Best Dad” just before their presidential elections? LOL

    • Reducto

      I fail to see how Zuma getting “World’s Best Dad” would amount to, in your words, a “direct interference” in the electoral process. Face it Harris, you are just being silly.