Characterising civil society and its challenges in post-apartheid South Africa

Since South Africa’s transition to democracy, civil society has been considered a critical component of new inclusive “democratic” societies, acting to ensure human rights for all. Government and donor agencies require the incorporation of this sector within project documents and programmes. However, is civil society merely a loosely defined term used to satisfy the requirements of project proposals and interests of the state, donors and big business, while not directly addressing the concerns of citizens subjected to macroeconomic risks (e.g. industrial pollution, unemployment and service delivery)? Since the transition, it is mainly established civil society organisations that have become well resourced and who have developed collaborative relationships with the state and industry, which has eroded their accountability to and support from the marginalised communities they claim to serve. Can such organisations then claim to be part of an “authentic” civil society striving for inclusive development? By reviewing contemporary and historical literature on civil society, and through empirical work, this paper argues that there has been a shift in the conception of civil society
since the transition, with established forms of support for the grassroots remaining doubtful. Civil society has not effectively engaged with the grassroots to project their concerns about macroeconomic risks, largely due to integration into government/donor institutions. Fragmentation within the grassroots arena has also limited coherent actions against dominant groups. Although civil society
can support the grassroots to address their concerns through formal activities, for example, by employing legal strategies, there is no guarantee of success. Connections between an “authentic” civil society and coherent grassroots actions engaging in a combination of strategies (formal and informal) will be required to achieve true democracy.

Keywords: civil society; political society; South Africa; NGOs; CBOs; grassroots; social movements

Leonard, L. (2014) Characterising civil society and its challenges in post-apartheid South Africa, Journal of Social Dynamics,

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