Volume 1 No 3 June 2004


N MAY, Isandla Institute officially launched the publication Voices of the Transition: The Politics, Poetics and Practices of Social Change in South Africa in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In total, around 250 people attended these two celebratory events.

In Johannesburg, the venue itself was reason to come to the book launch. The new Constitutional Court is an example of memorable architecture, in an almost literal sense – where the need to remember the past (and its systematic violation of human rights) coexists with the possibilities of constructing a present and future founded on human rights. It was unfortunate that one of the visionaries behind (and in) the new court and, needless to say, a stalwart in the struggle against apartheid, Judge Albie Sachs, was felled by the flu on the day of the launch.

In his witty and incisive keynote address, Prof Patrick Fitzgerald, Director of P&DM at Wits University, referred to Voices of the Transition as creating new opportunities for both personal and collective reflection and debate. The audience was also feasted on prose by Sello Duiker, poetry by Sandile Dikeni and a personal commentary by Monty Narsoo – all contributors to the book.

Equally special was the setting of the book launch in Cape Town, which took place in the National Gallery and coincided with a retrospective exhibition titled “A Decade of Democracy”. Against this background, Prof Jakes Gerwel, Chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, gave a thoughtful and considered key note address in which he spoke of Voices of the Transition as a celebration of a multiplicity of voices and narratives on the past 10 years. Two of Cape Town’s leading figures (both contributors to the book), the Vice Chancellor of UCT, Prof Njabulo Ndebele, and the new Premier of the Western Cape, Ebrahim Rasool, spoke about their motivation for becoming involved in the book project and what the book represents for them. An artistic rendition was provided by Marlon, an emerging poet and performance artist from the Cape Flats. Marlon was invited, even though he is not in the book, to signal that Voices of the Transition is also about creating space for others to add to the conversation.

Although the technical steps in publishing Voices of the Transition have been concluded, we are confident that the book will be a source of inspiration, reflection and critical engagement among the (progressive) reading public of South Africa. For anyone contemplating a similar endeavour we just want to say “good luck” – it is probably a good thing if you don’t know in advance what it takes to put together a volume of such eloquent and outspoken contributors!

This issue’s feature article in our Thought Matters section is written by Christa Kuljian, who puts forward some challenging questions about the willingness, readiness and ability of civil society organisations across the spectrum to engage one another and act together in the interest of development and social justice.


Are CBOs, NGOs and social movements ready and able to act together?
by Christa Kuljian

“Acting Together for a Just World” was the theme for the Fifth CIVICUS World Assembly that took place in Botswana from March 21-25, 2004. Given the diverse membership of CIVICUS and the wide range of actors that attended (some fresh from the World Economic Forum in Davos and others still thinking about the World Social Forum in Mumbai), it is important to ask if all those attending (close to 800 delegates from over 100 countries) were able to strategise on how to “act together” or whether they have the same vision of how to achieve a “just world”.

In much of the analysis of civil society and its many component parts, emphasis is often placed on relations with the state. For example, “State – civil society relations in post-apartheid South Africa” is the title of Adam Habib’s recent chapter in HSRC’s State of the Nation. Similarly, Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce in Civil Society and Development conclude that for CIVICUS, “the state is seen as the prime threat to civil society.” While it is important to define, explore and redefine the relationship of diverse civil society actors with the state, it is also important to explore the nature of relationships and tensions within civil society, as there are clearly conflicting approaches on how to achieve a more equitable and just world. As many organisations explore their approach to the market and global corporate capital, these fault lines become more and more apparent.

Adam Habib divides South African civil society into three blocs: 1) small survivalist CBOs, sometimes referred to as the 53% of nonprofits in the Johns Hopkins study, which have limited or no relationship with the state; 2) social movements, which have a more adversarial relationship with the state; and, 3) more formalised NGOs, many of which have entered into partnerships with the state. His conclusion that this plurality within civil society is good for South Africa’s democracy makes sense. However, he does not explore further the relationship among these three blocs and the implications for civil society’s overall effectiveness and impact.

There are numerous questions that arise in terms of the internal relationships among the three divisions of Habib’s “CBO-NGO-social movement” construction of civil society. How can larger and better resourced NGOs link with the smaller, less well-resourced CBOs that perform an important function in local communities but barely survive? How do well-established NGOs best support the work of fledgling social movements? How do social movements develop stronger organisational systems without leaving behind their core mission? In their analysis of SANCO, Patrick Heller and Libhongo Ntlokonkulu suggest the need to explore the relationship between social movements and other components of civil society. They state that a social movement “cannot be assessed simply in terms of how it impacts on the state. Social movements often have their most lasting effects in civil society. They can create new identities and new solidarities, they can raise new issues, they can bring new actors into public life.”

Certainly the development of social movements in South Africa in the mid to late 1990s – the Homeless People’s Federation, the Treatment Action Campaign, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People’s Movement, the Coalition for the Basic Income Grant (BIG), Jubilee 2000, to name but a few – has brought greater attention to South Africa’s priorities in terms of enormous poverty and inequality.

Some movements were borne of the collective work of CBOs at the local level (see a description of social movements in South Durban in Ashwin Desai’s We Are the Poors). Others have had strong relationships with and support from more traditional NGOs, such as members of Jubilee 2000 and the BIG coalition. The Landless People’s Movement was spawned from the National Land Committee, a more formalised NGO, but then parted ways as a result of bitter and complex conflict. Khulumani, originally housed within the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, has since become independent and developed its own set of strategies to support victims of apartheid who made submissions to the TRC.

The continuum from NGO to social movement is not always clear. How does one define the Homeless People’s Federation, which has become increasingly formalised and has begun to take on other social issues as well, now that many of its members are no longer homeless? Likewise, is Gun Free South Africa a social movement, an NGO or both? While the TAC is often sited as one of South Africa’s strongest social movements, it can also be described as having some characteristics of a more traditional NGO, depending on its stance with the state, its organisational structure and capacity, and its funding base. (For a full discussion of social movements, see the December 2003 issue of South African Labour Bulletin, the forthcoming paper by Richard Ballard of the Centre for Civil Society entitled “Globalisation, Marginalisation and Contemporary Social Movements in South Africa”, as well as a planned 2004 issue of Development Update on social movements.)

Certainly, part of the need to re-evaluate the relationship between CBOs, NGOs and social movements results from a period in the 1990s when donors put a strong emphasis on NGO capacity building, organisational development, measuring impact via logframes, and the professionalisation of the sector. While capacity building was necessary, it was often over-emphasised without the same level of attention given to the political issues that these organisations needed the capacity to address. Some NGOs became more professional, but lost their sense of mission and their emphasis on social change. (As David Hulme and Michael Edwards noted in 1997, this trend was not unique to South Africa.) One effort to bridge this disjuncture between the capacity needs of many CBOs and NGOs, and the need for a stronger movement towards poverty eradication was explored by Edgar Pieterse and Mirjam van Donk of Isandla Institute in their paper “Capacity Building for Poverty Eradication”, which was commissioned by the Sedibeng Centre in 2002. Certainly there are other efforts as well.

The international Johns Hopkins comparative study of the nonprofit sector has also contributed to the disjuncture between “activism” and “organisation.” While the study has made a major contribution towards recognising the economic impact of the nonprofit sector around the world, it has tended to de-politicise the sector, and thus the conception of civil society more broadly – although the South African study did well to acknowledge this problem in the South African context and encouraged nonprofits to remember their activist role.

The development of issue-focused social movements in South Africa provides an opportunity for more service oriented and policy advocacy NGOs to reassess their objectives and to again emphasise action and activism over form and organisation. At the same time, social movements can learn from some of the like-minded, well-established NGOs so as not to undervalue the role of strong organisation. Perhaps the question is: what are the best examples of fostering effective activism and effective organisation without loosing sight of one or the other?

These issues are not unique to South Africa and are being played out on a global scale as well. CIVICUS, through its Assembly and through other initiatives, has made numerous efforts to build bridges between different components of global civil society, including large global NGOs and local CBOS. The Chair of the Board of Amnesty International attended the Botswana Assembly and was surprised that he met many grassroots organisations that had never heard of Amnesty International. He saw the Assembly as an opportunity to liaise with and learn from smaller CBOs in a way that Amnesty International does not often have the chance to do. In an effort to get NGOs and trade unions talking, CIVICUS invited trade union leadership to Botswana (although no senior representative attended). Also, CIVICUS has gathered the Executive Directors of close to forty of the largest global NGOs in order to discuss their role in moving forward a global justice agenda as discussed at the World Social Forum.

In the wake of the Assembly, Kumi Naidoo, the CIVICUS Executive Director, has said that “the stars are aligned” in a way that could help overcome some of the fragmentation that exists within civil society. He cites the fact that human rights organisations are recognising the need to coordinate with development organisations, whilst development NGOs are embracing a rights based approach. He says that “during this period where civil society is under threat from the right, and as a result of the war on terrorism, it is important to create opportunities to make common cause.” “Even if there is not 100% agreement,” Naidoo says, “that should not be reason not to explore areas of commonality.”

The challenge for NGOs, broader social movements and local CBOS to define their roles and potentially work together is a challenge, both in South Africa and on a global scale. As we reflect on the CIVICUS World Assembly and look ahead to the next World Social Forum, these tensions and challenges are worth contemplating. Can all of civil society “act together” for a “just world?” It is unlikely. In fact, if civil society is to provide an arena where ideas about social, cultural, economic and political life can be publicly debated, then it is important to recognise that civil society is not homogeneous, nor always harmonious. However, it is possible for certain components of civil society to work together more strategically. Certainly the CIVICUS Assembly in Botswana provided a forum for much needed discussion and debate on how to make that happen.

N THE PREVIOUS Isandla Development Communiqué (No 2), Samantha Flemming commented on the government’s budget and critically engaged with some of the underlying assumptions and gaps in government policy. In response, Norman Reynolds sent the following message: “Samantha Flemming's comment is accurate and thus fair. There is a dangerous complacency about government policy, notably around poverty. It runs much deeper than relative budget allocations. The real issues begin with how to live with globalisation and how to construct a balancing set of localisation policies and programmes.” Norman Reynolds is part of a network called “The People’s Agenda”, which proposes alternative budgetary and fiscal instruments for macroeconomic and microeconomic reform. For more information, visit their website at www.thepeoplesagenda.co.za.
ARLIER THIS year, Xavier de Souza Briggs contributed the first Dark Roast Occasional Paper of 2004. His paper (No. 15) engages with the issue of urban segregation and its consequences, particularly in terms of access to work opportunities and other social benefits of city life. The paper proposes a number of strategies to reduce spatial segregation in urban areas and to mitigate the associated social and economic costs.

In the latest Dark Roast (No. 16), Kirsten Harrison critically examines the notion of social capital, which has become a popular concept in development literature and is generally embraced by the World Bank and donor agencies as an inherent ‘good’ for development. The paper problematises the notion of social capital and its relevance for and implications in an urban context.

Hot off the press!!! On 27 May 2004, the South African Cities Network launched the long awaited State of the Cities Report 2004. A future Isandla Development Communiqué will dedicate some space to discuss the significance of this document. In the meantime, see for yourself and download the report from the SACN website (www.sacities.net).


N 24-25 May, Firoz Khan and Edgar Pieterse on behalf of Isandla Institute presented the initial findings of a study on the Homeless People’s Federation (HPF) at a workshop in Durban. The study is part of a larger comparative investigation into new social movements under the auspices of the Centre for Civil Society, University of Natal. More specifically, the research conducted by Isandla Institute focuses on the People’s Housing Process, an initiative of the HPF that has become a key element of the national housing programme in South Africa. The final report of the study is due in August. The research outline and methodological framework is available on the website (Initial Notes for a Methodological Framework for Study on the Homeless People’s Federation).

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Editorial collective: Edgar Pieterse, Katherine McKenzie
and Mirjam van Donk