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Civil Society must confront new challenges

- Wits University

The absence of civil society during upheavals in communities and competition within the sector featured strongly in an address by Judge Mokgoro at Wits.

Civil society has been advised to form closer relationships with government in order to fulfil its role.

Former Constitutional Court Judge Yvonne Mokgoro says that civil society and government need to find a middle ground and work together as both sectors are key in sustaining democracy, entrenching human rights and poverty eradication.

According to Mokgoro, the tensions that often exist between the two only serve to delay development and create casualties.

The Judge delivered a keynote address on 30 August 2016 at the Wits School of Law during the 3rd Public Interest Law Gathering. Her address was titled: Civil Society: Its role in an increasingly assertive South African society.

Mokgoro sympathised with the sector adding that their role as critical evaluation agencies and watchdogs often results in antagonism from government officials. The hijacking of genuine concerns from civil society by opposition parties exacerbated the state’s suspicion of civil society.

“That should not be the reason for civil society to recede in its efforts and enthusiasm, because in doing so, it only makes the most vulnerable communities the casualty. The state and citizens benefit from a strongly independent civil society”, she said.

Mokgoro hailed the sector for its well documented role in fighting against apartheid and a government that was at war with its citizens. Having defeated this unjust structure, she said it was time for the sector to address new challenges that confront society.

Articulating the interests and demands of communities is one key service performed by most of the sector, however, the growing assertiveness of communities as witnessed in the lead up to the 2016 Local Government Elections and the accompanying violence prompted hard questions about civil society, she said.

“The primary question that arose at the time concerned the general absence of civil society, which would in those circumstances have played a crucially prominent interventionist role and mitigated the aggression and the impact of the anger of our communities.”

The secondary question asked was if communities have rendered the sector irrelevant in the discourse of service delivery perceived to be long overdue.

In responding to the latter, Mogkoro said the sector will always have a role in society.

“Although communities themselves, notwithstanding their literacy status levels, know and understand their own concerns better than anyone else, they do not often possess the necessary critical dispossession and strategic capacity to engage in questions of their own interest with the state. Civil society is therefore in a most logical position to play a meaningful role in advancing the state’s implementation programmes and thereby play a critical role in making real the promises of the constitution.”

Her wide ranging address touched a number of challenges and opportunities in the sector. She called for an end in internal competition for funding and encouraged more collaboration to spread the limited funding. The tough economic environment also requires donors to be more open-minded and allow a system of multiple finding where a recipient may receive minimal funding from multiple donors.

She further called on civil society to cultivate national and local donors. South African business needs to do more to fund the sector, she said, but warned that the sector should avoid being stripped of its ‘critical evaluation’ role by business.

The Public Law Interest Gathering in an annual event attended by advocates for human rights and public interest champions. It is organised through a coordinating committee consisting of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS, Wits University), Lawyers for Human Rights, the Legal Resources Centre, ProBono.Org, Section27, the Socio-economic Rights Institute of South Africa, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, Students for Law and Social Justice and the Wits School of Law.