In 2007, when discussing support for human rights organisations, South Africans would have focussed on those involved in second and third generation rights as there was a strong belief that basic human rights as outlined in our constitution were secure. However, recent events have dispelled this myth. In November 2007 Polokwane took place and since then we have seen attempts at erosion of our basic civil rights. We are also going through a period with little decision making taking place and a major shift in philosophy relating to the definition of our democracy. We are currently seeing an erosion of confidence that our constitutional democracy is secure as sustained attacks on the judiciary, the constitutional court and the press are taking place.

The judges of the constitutional court have been accused of being part of the “counter revolutionary forces” trying to destroy ANC president Jacob Zuma by the ANC Secretary General and Communist Party leader, Gwede Mantashe. Senior legal figures who played a role in the struggle, such as Arthur Chaskalson, previous head of the constitutional court, and George Bizos have found it necessary to raise these issues in the print media. Top ANC officials have suggested that the government should consider “regulating the judiciary”.

There seems to be little support for (or understanding) that we are not in a parliamentary democracy, but in a constitutional democracy. There is little understanding that it is the constitution that rules and not the party. The party is elected to manage our democracy for five years, to govern South Africa and to govern it in a way that is ethical and to the benefit of all its citizens. We have discussed governance at this academy and all the same values and principles apply to our party of choice. At the same time we are seeing increased levels of corruption that appear to be tolerated by government along with continued determination to protect our President from any possible corruption charges. The Scorpions were disbanded and our policing moved from a service to a force, playing out all the divisions that are taking place within the congress alliance.

A culture of conspiracy has become part of our political discourse without a thread of evidence backing it up. This is a political strategy and it is the same as that created in the Weimar Republic before Hitler came to power. It assists in building an extra-constitutional political base – this is not illegal, but this is the strategy which creates a dilemma for us. In Nazi Germany it eventually led to the establishment of para-military structures with uniforms marching in formations. Tie this to the Secrecy Bill and we have a dangerous cocktail. If we are already seeing these tendencies, we obviously need to ask ourselves where the limits are and how far we are prepared to go to avoid “trouble.”

The importance of civil society

Besides the increasingly important role of civil society organisations in delivering relief and welfare, contributing to a range of sectors from the environment to education, it has a political role through its advocacy function. With enormous knowledge relating to our society because many of us work at the coal face, most organisations have some critique of their sector and the government’s and business’s role in that sector. In addition, we have organisations that support our human rights and undertake applied policy research. These organisations tend to play a strong advocacy role as well as undertaking community work.

However there is some cynicism about the sector with criticism about lack of transparency, lack of accountability, lack of impact and a never ending culture of dependency. These are things that we in the sector need to address, but they should not deflect attention from the positive role that our civil society plays.

Who do we represent?

Multiple sites of power are crucial to a democracy and a vibrant civil society provides just that. Some of our organisations are membership-based and can therefore rightly claim to represent their own communities. Others are established by boards or trustees who are passionate about a specific cause and they create a mechanism to work in that field. Although they are not membership based, they still have enormous value because they exist.

They open up space for our society to debate matters, develop policy, undertake research and deliver services. These spaces were critical sites of struggle during the apartheid period, but they seem to have lost this energy. Universities were similar sites of energy and debate, but the passion that we saw previously has yet to re-emerge in these sectors.

The ANC has for some time objected to civil society organisations with the critique that nobody has voted for these organisations and that they are therefore unaccountable. Our constitution defends our right to free association and freedom of expression. Any individual has the right to hold the state to account as does a group, an organisation, a movement, a society or any other structure. And besides, civil society isn’t only there to check the state but also to keep a watchful eye on the corporate sector. Civil society organisations have been very effective at exposing businesses who exploit child labour, or are guilty of unfair labour practice, or environmental degradation, or price-fixing and excessive profit making.

In any event, the accusation about NGOs being unaccountable and unrepresentative is a non-starter. Civil society is our space where citizens have the right, and the freedom, to organise with like-minded people around particular issues or to work for particular socio-political, economic and/or cultural causes. CSOs are accountable – to their members, beneficiaries, donors and communities. It is political parties that are failing to account for where their funds come from, or where they have invested their party money. They also don’t seem to feel the need to tell us when their cadres benefit from private and other deals.

Where do we as individuals fit in?

In this room are representatives of people who work in the sector. Your contributions, your skills, experience, passion, heart and energy make up the “immune system” of society. This sector is the sector that tries to right the wrongs, tries to create an equilibrium so that we can sustain ourselves. Whilst the larger context has its problems, we in civil society have been working in a positive direction. We now have our own Independent Code of Governance and the lotteries is responding to pressure to implement its own good governance. These are aspects that enable us to function closer to our maximum potential. Whilst the donor world seems to be shrinking, we know South Africans are generous and we need to unleash their generosity by putting in place many of the opportunities that have been highlighted at this academy.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in this room for their major contribution towards South Africa and its people. I salute you.