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Sanco must leave the ANC-led alliance

My mother introduced me to civil-society politics at a very young age. Throughout my childhood, she worked for progressive NGOs that tackled social-justice issues. It was when my mother worked as the communications support officer of the South African NGO Coalition (Sangoco) that my passion for civil-society politics was born.

My first taste of the civic space was in 2010 when I volunteered for a Joburg-based NGO, Khanya College. Following that I did my internship at the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town and went on to be a field worker for Khanya College under the Jozi Book Fair department. But it was not until 2012 when the Thabo Mbeki Foundation established the African Youth Coalition (AYC), which I later lead as the secretary-general, that my appreciation for the potential of civil society to act as a vehicle of systematic change and structural reform was strengthened. The AYC introduced me to the political layer of the civic space and forced me to ask myself an important question: What is the role of civil society in post-colonial Africa in general and post-apartheid South Africa in particular?

On the African continent, civic organisations have been associated with national liberation movements and trade unions, they challenged the laws that underpinned the system of settler colonialism. While these organisations are supposed to be located outside of the formal governmental, party-political or development-agency institutions, they are often affiliated to political organisations. In the South African context, civic organisations were historically radical, community-based organisations that were established to protest and attempt to improve the living conditions under the apartheid system. Thus to understand the posture and orientation of civic organisations in South Africa, it is necessary to first give a brief analysis of the socio-political milieu of townships, the birthplace of the civic movement, in apartheid South Africa.

The establishment of townships in South Africa came as a result of the promulgation of the Native Affairs Urban Areas Act, which made provision for the establishment of a special kind of township that was intended as a habitat for migrant black labourers who toiled in the mines of Witwatersrand and the homes of white people. These townships were situated close enough to the metropolis to make allowance for black workers to commute, but far enough that they would not taint ivory towers of white existence with blackness. The infrastructure in these townships was of inferior quality and there was poor sanitation, with rubbish bins overflowing, sewage pipes blocked and streets unpaved. These poor conditions became a fertile ground for nurturing a community consciousness and for developing a resistance culture among black township residents.

The banning of national liberation movements in South Africa in the mid-1960s created a political vacuum that led to the growth in community consciousness. During the period of the 1970s, the ANC, the PAC and other liberation movements had little organisational presence inside the country. As a result, from the late 1970s, civic organisations that emerged in townships were at the forefront of struggles. These organisations became key players in the resistance movement, with their strategic thrust being that of seizing power from the apartheid government and its structures at a local level. They mobilised township residents against the state towards the realisation of an apartheid-free South Africa. This civics contributed to the formation of the SA National Civics Organisation (Sanco) in 1992, a civic organisation that is a component of the ANC-led Mass Democratic Movement (MDM).

The importance of Sanco belonging to the anti-apartheid MDM pre-1994 is evident. However, the orientation of the civic movement in the post-apartheid period is different to that of the former dispensation. The most important factor that is giving rise to the emergence of new social movements in our country is the high and growing levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality that characterise our current society. These triple challenges are a result of both an inherited apartheid past (in which a two-tier economic system that marginalised the black majority existed) and a post-apartheid government that is defined by maladministration, corruption and misappropriation of state resources. And so in essence, post-1994 civic movements are a response to the specific and real failures of a democratic state in the form of the ANC government to deliver on its responsibilities to the citizens it governs.

The reality of the situation is that the pre-1994 ANC is not the same one we have today. As such, the argument that civil society must work with government does not hold, because ours is not a progressive government that truly champions working-class interests. The former ANC was a liberation movement fighting against an unjust system that stratified people on the basis of race and class. Today, it is a bourgeois nationalist organisation that harbours the worst elements within its leadership ranks, and one that, through policies such as BEE and the controversial willing-buyer, willing-seller policy undermines the land-redistribution process and protects the interests of capital.

Sanco therefore cannot continue to belong to an alliance with a ruling party that is attempting (lugubriously) to represent the interests of the working-class majority and the bourgeoisie, at a time when Africa is faced with a neo-liberal crisis and imperial devastation at whose receiving end the poor majority is located. Furthermore, its alliance with the ruling party alienates many people because the working class itself, while it has common struggles, is not homogenous in its political outlook. Some of us love civil society but we do not want to work within the alliance.

The responsibility of reclaiming the civil-society space, in a quest to fulfil a historical mission of consolidating the struggles of the working-class masses, is one that Sanco must necessarily take. The failure to do this will result in the death of a gallant organisation and the birth of potentially reactionary formations that will undermine the revolutionary gains our country claimed through blood and sweat.