In commemorating the founding of the UDF on 20 August 1983, it is good to look back and see where the ANC went wrong as far as this particular structure was concerned. Civil society was grossly tamed under the Mbeki administration with structures and leaders being co-opted into the new democratic government. What we have seen in the Zuma presidency is a revival of that vibrant civil society hence the criticism from these quarters. A Ramaphosa presidency though points back to the days of a tamed civil society.

As we commemorate the establishment of the United Democratic Front, Cyril Ramaphosa’s recently expressed sentiments on civil society needs interrogation. In fact, his views on civil society provides a window into the current orientation of civil society in South Africa and a history of this important part of our society since the unbanning of the ANC. The Deputy-President’s understanding of the role of civil society indicates the direction that it will take again if he became president.

Ironically, delivering an OR Tambo memorial lecture in Soweto, Ramaphosa criticised the fact that it was civil society and the opposition that were campaigning against corruption. Instead, he insisted that it is ANC branches that should be taking up the fight against corruption. Yet in any democracy, civil society and the opposition are to hold the government accountable. While there is nothing wrong with suggesting that ANC branches should take up these anti-corruption campaigns, to do so however, so as to downplay the role of civil society is worrisome.  

It is ironic that Ramaphosa broaches this subject at an OR Tambo lecture. It was one of Tambo’s major tasks, if not his preeminent one, to keep the movement oiled and alive inside the country. He had to do this while maintaining unity among those in the country, lately known as in-ziles, the exiles, those in prison and the fighters in the camps. The destabilisation of South Africa, during the Tambo presidency, was pivotal given the pressure that the Apartheid regime had to feel within the country. As a result, Tambo happily embraced the formation of the United Democratic Front. 

William Gumede in his work, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, suggests that the automatic dissolution of the UDF into the ANC was a political decision taken by the ANC leadership in order to ward off any opposition to the future democratic government. UDF offices, or community advice offices, becoming ANC offices and community organisations being dissolved to become ANC structures had a devastating effect on the vibrant civil society that existed during Apartheid.

In addition to total decimation of UDF structures, the largest umbrella of civic organisations on the continent at the time, Gumede goes on to mention that leading civic and community leaders, despite not necessarily possessing the requisite skills, were co-opted into the new ANC government post-1994. The ANC was clever in this move, not only did it annihilate a strong civil society which would hold the new democratic government accountable but in co-opting these structures and leaders it somewhat gained a moral legitimacy in the country. A legitimacy needed to balance the large contingent of exiles coming back to govern the country. 

Needless to mention that two of the most prominent appointments from civil society was the appointment of the academic, Jakes Gerwel, to head Nelson Mandela’s office and the cleric, Frank Chikane, to head Mbeki’s office. Chikane went on to head the presidency even till after Mbeki’s exit but maintaining, unlike Gerwel, his deep links with civil society through preaching every Sunday and directly with the South African Council of Churches.

Gumede writes: “Mebki and other ANC leaders maintain[ed] that there is no place in the new democracy for an independent civic movement.” In fact, Gumede continues, even SANCO, the South African National Civics Organisation, would suffer tremendously under Mbeki’s administration, when people such as Smuts Ngonyama, then head of the ANC presidency declared, “Now that we have a democracy, why not incorporate SANCO branches into those of the ANC?” Today, we hear similar sentiments from Ramaphosa.

The suppression of civil society by Mbeki, from the days of the Mandela administration, led to the surge in social movements such as the Treatment Action Campaign, led by struggle soldier Zackie Achmat, the Landless People’s Movement, Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and the Concerned Citizen’s Forum, led by struggle stalwart Fatima Meer, among many other movements. But, as Gumede points out, Mbeki viewed these movements with deep suspicion.

Commenting on state-society relations in his book, To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa, Xolela Mangcu indicates that the South African developmental state limped along because the embedded autonomy that was to be enjoyed by civil society was weak. Organised business was divided, organised labour was feeble and networks for community organisations were non-existent. As a result, NEDLAC, the National Economic Development and Labour Council, where all these social partners, with government is represented, was completely by-passed when the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy was adopted. 

In other words, according to Mangcu, Mbeki and his administration were shooting the developmental state in the foot by the deliberate weakening of civil society through undermining the labour unions and discouraging mass community organisations. It therefore came as no surprise that the business community was divided given its lack of transformation and its unpatriotic nature.

If anything, the climax of Mbeki’s onslaught against a vibrant civil society came in the form of his reprimand of one of the struggle’s foremost churchmen, Desmond Tutu, when the cleric suggested at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture in 2004 that ANC members were sycophants. Mbeki simply asked the cleric whether he was a member of the ANC. In other words, the only ones who could criticise or question the ANC, was not a strong civil society, but rather only members of the ANC. Ramaphosa thinking indeed. Tutu’s archbishop at the time, Njongonkulu Ndungane, was nowhere to be seen, other than playing his role in Jubilee 2000.

The Zuma presidency rode in on the wave of civil society primarily through the defiance of the ANC’s alliance partners leading the way. In the twilight years of Mbeki’s ANC presidency, it was easy for COSATU and the SACP to join and work with movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Treatment Action Campaign. As a result, while there was a deliberate and successful attempt by Mbeki’s administration to neutralise civil society, especially the churches through the SACC, other movements, including leading Christian Pentecostal churches, were coming to the fore in taking the lead against policies such as GEAR.

The evidence of the strong civil society, as Ramaphosa attests to in his comments, indicates one of the fruits of the Zuma administration. While admittingly, the president has chastised church leaders for their harsh criticism, this should be understood in the strength that these church leaders now enjoy. Certainly, there is no evidence to suggest that President Zuma has viewed civil society in the manner that his predecessor did nor that he has not taken action against it. Again, his laisse faire leadership style has allowed for civil society to become as strong as it has.

Yet, it would seem that it is not only through economic policy that Ramaphosa will keep us on the same tread-mill that we have been running on for the last 23 years. His comments at the Tambo lecture indicates that our new found civil society will also come under hammering as happened in the early days of democracy. Instead of encouraging civic organisations and civic leaders to hold government accountable, he wishes for these to be absorbed into the ANC. The question then becomes, if Ramaphosa wants to keep the fight against corruption in house, is he the right one to fight it?

Wesley Seale Teachers Politics at Rhodes University 

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