My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
Why is “civil society” so loathed and even feared by so many politicians around the world? Earlier this year Russian President Vladimir Putin (a former KGB agent) accused civil society groups in Russia of working at the behest of foreign powers and of trying to foment political upheaval in Russia after demonstrations broke out against his regime. And our own Blade Nzimande (Minister of Higher Education who also moonlights as the Secretary General of the South African Communist Party) yesterday launched a blistering attack against “the liberal notion of ‘civil society'”, depicting it as a threat to the National Democratic Revolution.
Liberals, Nzimande complained (simplifying things just a tad), present civil society “as being the best custodian of our democracy, with the demonization of the state as inherently bad, corrupt, predatory and not to be trusted”.
This manifests itself in the mushrooming of issue-based non-governmental organisations, funded in the main by foreign and imperialist donors, often under the claim that our democracy and constitution are under threat. These claims are then used to fund these NGOs, a number of which are actually pursuing a political agenda to discredit, if not dislodge, our movement from power. Whilst not all of the NGOs are pursuing this agenda, we must nevertheless be alive to an oppositionist agenda disguised as defence of our constitution. Often it has been through the funding and mobilization of so-called ‘civil society’, backed by mainstream media, that imperialism has sought to dislodge revolutionary movements from power.
Linked to the above, is increased litigation of virtually all major government decisions, often as an attempt to create an unelected parallel government accountable only to the unelected boards of many of these organisations parading as custodians of our democracy and constitution. Of course we are a democracy that must allow a variety of views to express themselves, but at the same time we cannot be blind to this agenda that seeks to undermine and subvert the fundamental principle of our democracy, that the people shall govern!
Nzimande then “conceded” that these dark forces often only exploit the weaknesses of the revolutionary forces (sorry, that’s how Nzimande seems to talk). Part of taking responsibility for the “revolution”, warned Nzimande, requires good communists to pay closer attention to mass mobilization and the building of organs of people’s power on the ground. Good communists should also take part more vigorously in the battle of ideas.
It is a pity that Nzimande did not practice what he preached by engaging in a real battle of ideas about the role of civil society groups in our democracy. Instead, he launched a vague ad hominem attack against an amorphous thing called civil society, as if all – or at least most – organisations that are part of civil society share the same ideological outlook or are generally intent on discrediting the government or dislodging it from power. (Not that there is anything wrong with any organisation trying to discredit the governing party or to dislodge a government from power through the spreading of their ideas – it is called democracy.)
Who are these NGO’s Nzimande is talking about; who exactly fund them for what purpose; what conditions are attached to this funding and what have these NGO’s specifically done to undermine democracy; what exactly is the imperialist agenda promoted by these NGO’s and what practical steps do they take to advance this imperialist agenda; and, lastly, if one professes to be a democrat, should one not accept that anybody has every right to dislodge the “revolutionary movement” from power by any legal means?
On these issues comrade Blade is silent. In the absence of details, one must assume that his attack is either nothing more than the paranoid fulminations of someone who hates it when others justly criticise him and the government in which he serves so happily when he or its members indulge in corrupt, nepotistic, arrogant, money-wasting or incompetent practices, or that it is empty rhetoric aimed at conjuring up phantom enemies against whom to rally the wavering troops.
But let’s try and take Minister Nzimande’s claim seriously and give it the attention these vague and slightly hysterical generalisations do not really deserve. I would guess that the Minister’s complaint is based on the Marxist critique of civil society developed by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued that capitalism maintained control of a system not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also through ideology. The bourgeoisie, he warned, developed a hegemonic culture, which propagated its own values and norms so that these values became the “common sense” values of the society as a whole (including of those in society who serve in the judiciary, in academia and as public officials).
In a capitalist society, Gramsci argued, people in the working-class (and other classes) identified their own good with the good of the bourgeoisie because they were in the grip of the hegemonic ideology of their class enemies, and they thus they helped to maintain the status quo and maintain capitalism. Instead of leading a revolt against the oppressive bourgeoisie, the oppressed often acquiesced in their own oppression because they were in the hegemonic grip of the elites.
Gramsci stressed that the distinction between “political society” (the police, the army, legal system, Parliament, political parties and the like) and “civil society” (the family, the education system, trade unions, and NGO’s) was purely conceptual and that the two, in reality, often overlapped. The capitalist state, Gramsci claimed, ruled not only through force but often through consent: political society is the realm of force and civil society is the realm of consent.
A strong civil society, with many flourishing NGO’s with various ideological dispositions and agenda’s that did not neatly overlap with the aims and ideology of the revolutionary government of the day would counter the ability of the revolutionary forces to impose its own form of hegemonic consent on everyone. If, say, one was part of a political movement who believed it had a divine right to rule and to stay in power forever (ostensibly to “advance the revolution” but potentially also to retain access to the material benefits – like long stays in super luxury Hotels and being chauffeur driven in R1 million cars – associated with control of the fiscus), one would view NGO’s with some suspicion. These NGO’s could become a rather big bother to any revolutionary movement as that movement tried to establish its own hegemony over society and entrench its power and ensure that the masses of the people never resisted its rule.
I suspect that this is why in his attack on “civil society” and NGO’s, Minister Nzimande sounds rather undemocratic and not much in favour of actually engaging in a contestation of ideas about what is best for our society. If it is true that the masses of our people often remained captured by hegemonic ideas which led to them consenting to the status quo, then the contest between independent NGO’s with a social justice agenda (NGO’s who aim to contribute to the empowering of communities to become active citizens fighting for their rights to education, to health care, to housing, to water and electricity) on the one hand, and the “revolutionary movement” on the brink of collapsing under the weight of corruption and nepotism on the other, is a rather important one.
In an open and free constitutional democracy we all have the right to promote our ideas, to engage in civil and political action to propagate our ideas and to criticise others – including the members of the government of the day (whether its members style themselves as members of a revolutionary movement or as members of a kleptocratic tenderpreneurial elite). If our ideas catch on – as many ideas propagated by NGO’s like Equal Education, Section 27, The Treatment Action Campaign, the Aids Legal Network, Freedom Under Law, Lawyers for Human Rights have done – then this is either because these ideas are better than the stodgy fair provided by the Tripartite Alliance or because the ideas are being communicated better.
For example, I would imagine that the idea that the state should do more to provide more children with far better education and to address the fact that many poor children still receive a shockingly inferior education if compared to children of middle class parents, would be widely supported by South Africans. They probably would also support the idea that the Minister of Basic Education, whose salary they pay, should take responsibility for the monumental and systemic cock-ups in her Department. (Minister Nzimande is of course free to try and conjure up arguments that would persuade the majority of South Africans that these are bad ideas- but good luck to him.)
It is not, as Nzimande seems to think, subversive of democratic rule to promote one’s ideas just because these ideas have not always officially been approved by the self-styled revolutionary movement or because these ideas might lead to criticism of the governing party. NGO’s have no duty in a democracy meekly to subject themselves to the discipline of the government alliance of the day and they have no duty always to sing the praises of the government – regardless of whether the gopvernment acts against the interests of the very people it claims to serve or whether they actually do good work.
The critique of civil society is therefore both non-sensical and anti-democratic.
A plausible critique would have to be more specific than the flummery Nzimande produced in his speech yesterday. It would have to pin-point specific NGO’s and name and shame them, it would have to identify individual positions they have taken “in defence of the Constitution”, demonstrate why taking these positions were aimed at promoting and protecting the class interests of the bourgeoisie (or at least why it had this effect), and it would then have to demonstrate how this actually creates an “unelected parallel government”.
Such a critique could, for example, attack Freedom Under Law for the various steps it has taken to try and protect and promote the Rule of Law. But Nzimande would then have to be a bit less lazy and would have to provide a cogent critique of the evils of the Rule of Law (and would have to answer the arguments made by the Marxist historian EP Thompson who said that the Rule of Law was “an unqualified human good”). This would be difficult, as he would have to argue that respect for the law and the demand that public power should only be exercised if authorised by law and then only in a rational manner was somehow counter revolutionary. For many of us, any arguments made to this effect might well sound like an argument in favour of lawlessness and of bestowing absolute power – monarch-like – on those leaders of our revolution who have, quite frankly, not all shown that they could be trusted not to steal our money and undermine our democratic rights if we granted them absolute power unchecked by legal limits.
Or the critique could play it safe and engage with the actions taken by Afriforum, illustrating how this civil society group aims to promote and protect the interests of the previously advantaged at the expense of the poor and marginalised.
In a constitutional democracy one has every right to criticise an NGO for advancing ideas or positions with which one does not agree. For example, although I personally align myself with the work done by many NGO’s that work in the social justice field, I am critical of other civil society organisations – the Free Market Foundation; The FW de Klerk Foundation and its Centre for Constitutional Rights and, yes, Afriforum – because I do not share their ideological perspective. But the way to engage with these organisations is not to mutter darkly about how they are trying to take over the country by having the cheek to promote their own ideas. In a democracy the only way to engage with them is to criticise their ideas and the actions they take (as I have sometimes done in the past) and provide arguments for why one’s own ideas are better and why these should be accepted by the majority of South Africans.
And unlike Nzimande I will never patronise South African voters by in effect arguing that voters must be protected from these organisations who will highjack their very souls and will make them support stuff that they should not support because it is not in their interest to do so (or, maybe more accurately, it is not in the interests of those who govern us at present). That is why the lazy and slightly paranoid ad hominem attacks against faceless and never named NGO’s are so embarrassing – these attacks come across as self-serving, anti-democratic and rather un-revolutionary. They also create the impression that those who launch them are not very confident in the power of their own ideas and in their ability to sell these ideas to the majority of citizens yearning for a better life free from corruption, a life in which individuals in need are supported and cared for by an efficient state.BACK TO TOP