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  • The perils of a shared past: rethinking civil society strategy
  • Steven Friedman

It has become almost an article of faith among activists concerned to win rights for grassroots citizens to insist that the change in African National Congress leadership at Polokwane in 2007 has created new threats to civil society organisations in general and those ‘progressive’ groups who seek to broaden and deepen access to human rights in particular. But how valid are the assumptions about how change is achieved on which this judgment is based?

It is easy to see the political environment created by changes in ANC leadership as a threat to the role and influence of civil society associations pressing for deeper access to rights and this is precisely how many organisations and activists do understand current realities. But, while fears that trends in the current governing elite may hold perils for rights activism and for citizen organisations more generally could prove well-founded – the outcome of current political developments is anything but inevitable –current understandings within civil society of the problems posed by recent changes seem to be based on flawed assumptions. Whatever the immediate future may hold for civil society, effective citizen action to deepen and broaden democracy requires a rethinking of prevailing attitudes to the constraints and opportunities facing civil society.

This article is an attempt to stimulate this rethink. Its claims about prevailing thinking among ‘progressive’ civil society activists is drawn from an exercise conducted in 2009 in which four round table discussions were convened at which civil society activists, the overwhelming majority of them drawn from ‘progressive’ organisations which seek to broaden and deepen the rights promised by the constitution, were invited to discuss the changes [End Page 120] in the political climate prompted by the ascendance of a new ANC leadership and the subsequent events which this change triggered. While the exercise does not claim to offer a statistically accurate account of current civil society attitudes, the range of organisations which participated was wide enough and the commonalities between the positions of the participants substantial enough to ensure that, at the very least, the views discussed here are indicative of attitudes in a very significant section of civil society. A full account of the discussions has been published elsewhere and will not be repeated here except insofar as they illustrate this article’s purpose – to draw themes from the conversations which enable a discussion of the implications of current thinking among many activists for our understanding of civil society’s options.

A sense of abandonment?

The view that leadership changes in the ANC have limited civil society’s options and enhanced threats to citizens’ organisation was deeply held by most of the participants in the round table discussions. The misgivings were expressed in three broad themes.

First, activists detected the emergence within the ANC leadership of a new social conservatism on issues such as sexual preference and the rights of accused persons. Derogatory comments about gay men by President Jacob Zuma were cited and the fact that he later retracted them was seen as irrelevant, because it was assumed that the original remarks expressed what he really believed, while the retraction was merely an attempt to appease critics. His comments, it was suggested, were but one example of an environment in which rights which seemed fairly entrenched before 2008 – at least in principle – were under threat. Attacks on the complainant outside Zuma’s rape trial formed a backdrop for these concerns: demands by ANC politicians that police be allowed to ‘shoot to kill’ (IOL, April 10, 2008) and the subsequent changes to police instructions which appeared to implement this threat (BBC, November 12, 2009) were cited as confirmation of the shift. It was argued that changes in the ANC had thrust into leadership positions politicians who rejected the consensus in favour of rights which seemed to hold in the previous administrations. This would clearly weaken the influence of human rights activism but the consequences could be more severe: the society might face an erosion of rights which would not only reduce the ability of rights-based advocacy to win further change but would also threaten the rights which have already been...


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pp. 120-136
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