NGOs elevate our democracy

South Africans have learnt that democracy isn’t simply a destination that they reached with the formal end of apartheid on April 27 1994. It is also a lifelong quest to keep up the pressure against corruption, and on elected representatives to deliver on promises.

A significant proportion of political contestation comes from tussling and lobbyists for a variety of single-issue organisations. The environmentalists, for example, take up issues such as the management of radio-active waste; fossil fuel power stations, and air and water pollution. Protests, street marches and media polemics are all part of this.

Defend our Democracy Campaign is the latest organisation to join a veritable ecosystem of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that range all the way from Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement (Shack Dwellers’ Movement) to AfriForum. Abahlali focuses on the street-by-street organisation of informal settlement residents to defend their rights and improve their lot. AfriForum is a civil rights organisation that “mobilises Afrikaners, Afrikaans-speaking people and other minority groups in South Africa and protects their rights”.

Some of these NGOs, like the Helen Suzman Foundation, focus on litigation, hence the conversation about “lawfare” – referring to the judicialisation of politics – having replaced warfare or elections. These extra-parliamentary politics forms part of a deeper defence that, in my view, will give democracy more resilience in South Africa.

Ordinarily, democracies depend on voters floating between parties.

A governing party or coalition that is ineffective or fails to improve the electorate’s livelihood loses votes, and an alternative party or coalition comes into office. But in South Africa, this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. This is because the ruling ANC still holds close to 50% of the vote nationally, combined with the fact the official opposition, the DA, shows scant signs of growing nationally from 20% to more than 50% of the vote.

Instead of switching their votes, voters are opting in increasing numbers to abstain and not vote for any party. This means that the heavy lifting when it comes to democracy will increasingly depend on NGOs, constitutional litigation and street protests.

The other reason these organisations, and approaches, have the potential to keep democracy alive in South Africa is that they’re emboldened by the arrangement set up in 1994. The most visible political earthquake that year was the transfer from white minority rule to black majority rule. South Africa transformed itself into a constitutional democracy as the Bill of Rights of the constitution became supreme.

But this system also has its drawbacks.

First, there is the tendency among South Africans to turn to the courts in pursuit of change, or what’s known as “lawfare”. This is problematic because the result is that the losing side tends to blame the judiciary, not their political party rivals.

South Africa is now nearing a peaking part of its political cycle. This year, the ANC is scheduled to elect both new provincial and national leaders. All eyes are watching the balance of power between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his rivals in his party.

In 2024, the country will hold a general election, with simultaneous voting for parliament and each of the nine provincial legislatures. NGOs and the rest of civil society can, for example, heap pressure on ANC leaders charged with corruption being re-elected by their faction to ANC offices and structures.

So far, opposition parties do best in municipal elections and the ANC does best in general elections. But either way, South Africa can expect to hear a lot more from the new Defend Democracy organisation, plus all the established NGOs.

The country has much to think through.


  • Kotze is a chief research specialist in democracy and citizenship at the Human Science Research Council and a research fellow at the Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State. This article first appeared on The Conversation

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