South Africa’s better angels are holding the line

Brent Chalmers

Managing Trustee: The Soul Provider Trust, City of Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa


There is something in our beleaguered country that works — and works beautifully. It is that mass of community groups, NGOs such as Section 27, trade unions, business bodies such as Business Leadership South Africa, charities such as Gift of the Givers, faith-based groups, and professional associations such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica). It is our civil society.

If there is anything that is feisty, that shoots straight, that refuses to be cowed in this country of ours, it is civil society. Every day, you have some or other group marching, petitioning and litigating. If it weren’t for our vigilant, diverse, vibrant civil society organisations, South Africa would have collapsed years ago.

Take last week. Finance minister Enoch Godongwana rushed to grant Eskom exemptions from reporting malfeasance and lax oversight at the utility. Civil society organisations saw his move for exactly what it was — an attempt to sweep corruption under the carpet — and made a huge stink. Within days Godongwana had backtracked.

Then there’s the issue of pit latrines. Our lazy and incompetent government has failed to provide sanitation — the most basic of services — to all schools for 29 years. It is the work of NGOs that forced Angie Motshekga, the very basic education minister, to make some noises about acting. If they did not exist, and if they were not as feisty as they are, we would have Motshekga sitting in her office doing sweet bugger all.

We all know the problem of pit latrines can be fixed in no time. Motshekga knows it too. Just give the challenge to Gift of the Givers and the whole thing will be sorted out. It is this knowledge, and the sterling work of the NGOs that litigated against her to get some modicum of justice for the families of children who have died in pit latrines, that stopped the minister twiddling her thumbs and stirred her into action.

While members of the cabinet seem to be either dozing or posting pictures of themselves cutting ribbons, civil society organisations are doing the real work South Africa needs.

This week, the Helen Suzman Foundation is challenging home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s decision to terminate Zimbabwean exemption permits. If the minister’s decision is upheld, permits will expire on June 30, with profound economic and political consequences for the region. No-one cares about the poor and oppressed people of Zimbabwe. Our government supports the country’s repressive regime. Only the NGOs speak for Zimbabweans.

Meanwhile, former SAA board member and “chartered accountant” Yakhe Kwinana has been fined R6.1m and barred from membership of Saica after a disciplinary hearing.

You will remember Kwinana: the Zondo commission report said she probably received “corrupt payments” that “were made in exchange for decisions, in which Ms Kwinana was involved, that benefited the entity that made the payments”.

If it were not for Saica, she would not be facing any kind of sanction. Even with clear evidence against her, the law enforcement agencies have sat on their hands.

So here is the thing, and I think it is important. Over the past 30 years we have outsourced a lot in South Africa. To avoid a collapsing public health-care system, the middle class has moved to the private sector. To avoid crime, we have private security. We now have generators instead of electricity supplied by Eskom.

In the area of holding the powerful to account, in the upholding of the constitution, it is no longer our government that is in the vanguard. Civil society is at the forefront of representing the people.

While the government has made empty promises, civil society organisations have gone to court to compel the same government to do its job, provide power — and build toilets. In almost every battle they have taken on, these organisations have won.

We have a poor government but we have a vibrant, imaginative, powerful civil society backed up by a people-centred constitution. These civil society victories are deeply meaningful. They say to every South African: the power is in your hands. They remind us of the expression “We, the people”.

This is something to celebrate.


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