- The changing faces of urban civic organisation
The article and the context
Looking back from the 2000s at urban politics in South Africa in previous decades, observers are struck by both the continuities and the changes. On the one hand, as Doreen Atkinson has written, ‘for a “Rip van Winkel” who had fallen asleep in 1988 and awoken in 2005, it might appear as if the “rolling mass action” of the end-of-apartheid period had simply continued into the dawn of democratic government in South Africa’ (Atkinson 2007: 53). On the other hand, the political landscape has changed completely, with the construction of democratically-elected, non-racial local government, with ensuing and dramatic changes in public policy.
My article on ‘SANCO: strategic dilemmas in a democratic South Africa’, published in Transformation 34 (1997a), reflected a particular moment in a long story of transition-with-continuities. The article was one of a set in which I tried to make sense of the changing character, activities and roles played by civic organisations during the early and mid-1990s, ie during and immediately after the transition to democracy. At that time the changes were especially striking. With the benefit of hindsight, some of the continuities are clearer also.
The relevant story of urban political change begins in the 1980s. Urban townships were the primary battleground in the final phase of the struggle against apartheid, and ‘civic’ organisations played a central role in this ‘township revolt’. A number of scholars examined forms of civic organisation during the township revolt in different parts of South Africa (including Evans 1980, Cooper and Ensor 1981, Challenor 1984, Boraine 1987, Cole 1987, Von Holdt 1987, Swilling 1988, Pillay 1989, Atkinson 1991, Mayekiso 1996, [End Page 140] Tetelman 1997, Van Kessel 1995, 1999).1 My own doctoral thesis examined the radicalisation of civic organisations as part of the transformation of urban politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s, focusing on the townships on the West Rand, East Rand and Pretoria (Seekings 1990). In other papers I had extended this to consider the roles played by civics during the township revolt (especially Seekings 1989a, 1992b, 1992c), including with respect to popular justice (Seekings 1989b, 1992a), and in relation to national political organisation through the United Democratic Front (published finally as Seekings 2000a).
For anyone working with civic organisations, the early and mid-1990s were a period of extraordinary change. Initially, civic organisations and activists were drawn into local governance, especially over urban development, on a largely ad hoc basis. By mid-1996, however, South Africa’s towns and cities had both the institutions of representative democracy and a plethora of corporatist and consultative fora concerned with various areas of public policy and practice. Formally, South Africa had a free and competitive party system, but in practice this was a dominant party system, dominated by the African National Congress (ANC). This was especially true at the local level, across most of the country, raising the question of who would exert any pressure on the ANC to ‘deliver’ the changes long-demanded by civic activists and ordinary people. A national organisation of civic organisations – the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) – was formed in 1992, and non-government organisations were very active, assisting civic activists to replan urban development and policy. The social and economic contexts were also changing rapidly. The end of apartheid meant an acceleration of processes of differentiation and stratification within the African population.2 Economic opportunities were opening rapidly, drawing both civic organisations and individual activists into the world of investment as well as the world of government.
In the second half of the 1990s I wrote a series of papers considering how the transition to (representative) democracy had transformed civic organisations at local, provincial and national levels. These new papers drew on some practical engagement with civics and civic-linked NGOs (primarily the Development Action Group, DAG) in Cape Town in the early 1990s (although I was never employed by a civic or a civic-linked NGO) together with new research, comprising interviews with civic activists at local and provincial levels, primarily (but not only) in the Western Cape. [End Page 141...