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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