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  • Civil Society in South Africa
  • Khehla Shubane (bio)

In the many debates that are taking place in South Africa today, quite a few people are beginning to focus on civil society as an institution that can have a considerable impact on the quality of the democracy we are going to have in the postapartheid era. Broadly speaking, these people argue that democracy's future will depend in large measure on whether or not we are able to build up a true civil society, meaning that array of private, nongovernmental groups and organizations in and through which ordinary South Africans can make sense of their everyday lives.

Among those who are focusing on the question of civil society, there are basically two opposing viewpoints. According to one, South Africa is already endowed with a fairly robust civil society; the only thing that those concerned with the future of democracy need do, the argument goes, is to ensure that all of those private formations are left intact and are not absorbed into the state. The opposing view holds that there is no civil society in South Africa; its adherents argue that apartheid is essentially a form of colonialism, and colonialism militates against the emergence of a civil society.

I share the latter view. I think that part of the reason why we in Africa do not yet have viable civil societies is that our countries are still emerging or have just recently emerged from colonial domination. Such societies tend to be pervaded by what I call the politics of liberation. Liberation movements arise to represent the interests of all the dominated and oppressed people, and therefore tend to take an undifferentiated view of all the various interests that exist within the oppressed community. Not surprisingly, societies dominated by liberation movements find it extremely difficult to form a vigorous civil society.

Yet if South Africa currently lacks a robust civil society (at least in [End Page 53] the political sense), that does not mean that one cannot be built in the postapartheid future. But there is nothing inevitable about the process, which will depend for its success on several conditions being met. One is the complete acceptance of competitive politics at the national level. A second is the acceptance of the legitimacy of interest-group representation. Among black South Africans at least, this is proving difficult to accept, for interest groups still tend to be represented by and through liberation movements. If this continues into the postapartheid era, we may find ourselves in trouble. A third condition requiring acceptance is the notion that policy debate should not be confined to existing political parties or movements, but should be open to a much wider group of interlocutors. Nongovernmental groups especially must be brought into those debates.

I think that South Africa has a chance of moving along the broad path that I have outlined. Multipartism, for example, appears to be in the cards: we now have a number of fairly strong parties or groups that are unlikely to want to meld into a single political party. I do not envision the National Party ever wanting to join hands with, say, the ANC in order to govern the country as one organization. Then there is Inkatha, which I think wants to continue as an independent formation, and will wish to contest future democratic elections under its own banner. None of these groups is strong enough to reconstruct the country all by itself. While these organizations are not going to be collapsing into one, I believe that each also realizes that all the others have a role to play in the construction of a future democracy. We also have groups like the white business community, the press, the universities, and similar institutions that have long traditions of fairly independent existence. All these institutions and groups cherish their autonomy from the state and from existing political parties, and will most likely continue to do so. They too can help lay the basis for competitive politics in a democratic South Africa.

There are also many black community organizations that deserve credit for making possible the transition that is now underway in South Africa. These are the groups that...


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pp. 53-55
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