The Civic Movement in South Africa: Popular Politics, Then and Now

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Mzwanele Mayekiso

The tradition of democracy within the progressive movement in South Africa remains alive and well, judging not only by the recent, high-profile contestation of ANC provincial elections, but also by grassroots democratic impulses within the civic movement that are not well-documented.

Several South African National Civic Organization (SANCO) regions across the country are in the process of having congresses (in preparation for next year’s national conference), and last weekend SANCO Gauteng’s congress featured an extremely vigorous democratic process with hotly-contested elections that will be resolved when the congress resumes its work again early next year.

Yet the civic movement is often rumored to be on its last legs, and many critics say that it has outlived its usefulness. Some even say that now that the ANC is in power in most local governments, civics should simply cease to exist.

We last heard such arguments in 1990, when the burial of the United Democratic Front reflected the shift of many activists into formal political parties. But advocates of independent working-class civil society in hundreds of towns and thousands of villages made their case clearly, and so the civic movement prospered during the early 1990s.

But there are a number of major differences between civics today and those of the early 1990s and of the previous mid-1980s era of mass organizing.

We can only begin to sketch some of these differences, looking back a decade. But to do so helps us reflect on where we need to be in the decade ahead.

Then, our common enemy was apartheid; today we face confusion about who to struggle against. Then, the political/ economic vision shared by most activists was socialism; now we lack clarity about our long-term goal (socialism, social democracy, or a successful form of neoliberalism?).

Then, we saw the role of civil society as revolutionary; today, civil society is sometimes posed as a pliant partner to shrink-the-state neo-liberalism, or merely as a watchdog for social democracy, and more rarely, as a stepping stone to socialism via community-based struggle.

Then, the progressive hegemonic line was UDF non-racialism through mass politics; today, we suffer from top-down politics based increasingly on the politics of “corporatism” (pacting between elites).

Then, the dominant bottom-up sentiment was ungovernability and militancy; today, we find popular anger and cynicism about the gravy train, alienation due to non-delivery, and activists now sometimes degenerating into “on-the-make” activities, not progressive organizing.

Then, the dominant grassroots political formation was the civic; today, there are a greater variety of community organizations and populist groups contesting for mass or community loyalties.

Then, resources were drawn from international progressive funders; today, we have very few resources, and we run the risk of succumbing to the corporate and foundation donor agendas and even control.

Then, the spirit of voluntary community commitment was part and parcel of the logic of liberation politics and the self-activity of the masses; today, voluntarism is considered part of “social capital” and is increasingly commodified.

Then, class formation was affected by all black residents living together within homogenizing townships; today, stratification intensifies, with the black petty bourgeoisie “escaping” the townships.

Given these differences, let me pose some tough questions, not necessarily to be answered now.

Is the traditional civic movement ideology of “working-class civil society” still relevant and appropriate? Is working-class civil society a vehicle for socialism, for weak social democracy, or even for succumbing to neo-liberalism? How do organs of working-class civil society relate to the democratic state? How has our mode of organizing changed? Is there any hope for the civic movement and working-class civil society?

I believe there are sufficient continuities between the past and present that prove our relevance as civic activists today. Then, we challenged legitimacy of undemocratic state as our first priority, and slowly tackled bread-and-butter “development.” Today, we work nearly entirely to achieve more progressive forms of development and community-based planning, a site of struggle where most of our constituents can maintain high levels of ongoing commitment.

But are we consistent in how we define development? Then, in the context of insurgency, working-class civil society generally adopted the ideology of socialism — expanding “dual power” through workplace and community “soviets,” youth and gender campaigns, liberation theology, etc — even if this was “millennial” (far into the future).

Today, in the context of on-the-make corporatism, three competing threads have emerged. We are most worried about neo-liberalism, because it gives civil society more prominence and responsibilities — without sufficient resources — so as to better shrink the state. Civics then become little more than rubber-stamp vehicles, driven sometimes by political parties which control government, for endorsing conservative notions of development.

Second, we have mixed feelings about social democracy, which can provide some basic goods but which, politically, envisages civics in the standard liberal role that “pluralistic” organizations have in relation to the state.

Third, we still feel comfortable with socialism, which requires us to continue developing class power and experiments in decommodified relations of production and consumption, supported by strong-but-slim state.

This brings us, as civic activists, to the question of our relationship to the democratic state. Today, we have complex relations with democratizing local and provincial governments, including occasional protests, cooperation and a never-ending search for progressive allies.

But even good local and provincial relations do not nullify our concern that nationally, the political philosophy embodied in the Government of National Unity was a weak combination of ultra-reconciliation plus neoliberal economic policy. Concern at grassroots civic level remains that this lethal combination is derailing ANC campaign promises and the Reconstruction and Development Program.

What do we do about this? A decade ago, our ability to survive during long spells in prison depended upon our reproduction of new layers of cadre. Today, it is more difficult because leading layers from the movement keep getting pulled aboard the gravy train — not only government, but also private sector and even NGO work — and empowerment/capacity building support (such as funding, NGO assistance, even press coverage) has ebbed. Civics still offer few “career” prospects, salaries, perks and so forth, and so we lose our better cadres quite quickly.

Nevertheless, the concepts of civics, of a national civic movement and of a Left civic ideology are still widely accepted. Deep structural forces and contradictions in South African capitalism mean the need for protest is as great as ever. International trends point to the importance of urban social movement revivals during periods of advancing neoliberalism, so that well-known “IMF riots” don’t degenerate into anarchy and instead transform into serious opposition against right-wing economic policy.

And while internal civic democracy has waned in practice, it is still the theoretical basis for civic politics. Many individual civics at township and rural village level retain the movement’s best characteristics. Finally, we also retain the ability to debate.

So all these questions and arguments — and others, no doubt — will be hashed out, if not resolved, at our next national conference. It is the duty of our civic comrades, and of our allies in the Democratic Movement, to keep us moving forward with searching analysis.

ATC 66, January-February 1997