A response to Ralph Mathekga on why advocacy is vital - News24

12 November 2019 - dvocacy is a long-standing and vital process in the South African body politic. Whether one supports any position is for every individual South African to decide, not for the government to determine.

Sara Gon

In his column, The rise of political lobbying in SA: Are we ready for it? (5 November), Ralph Mathekga expresses concerns at the advocacy efforts of South Africa's NGOs and argues that these should be regulated by the government. His concerns are misplaced and his proposal risks setting a dangerous precedent both for civil rights and for the county's ability to interrogate failed policy. Advocacy has always played, and continues to play, a part in South African politics.

His begins his argument by drawing a false distinction between 'NGOs [that] generally act in the public interest, and often on behalf of those who are vulnerable in society' and those who engage in what he calls 'lobbying' – which we take to mean advocacy in pursuit of influencing the policies adopted by the government and political leaders and the people who make such policy.

For many NGOs, advocacy is central to their efforts at acting 'in the public interest' and 'on behalf of the vulnerable in society'. 

Take the recent case of the massive civil society advocacy effort in response to the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana at a post office in Cape Town. Scores of groups came together to place pressure on the government and politicians to take action against those officials who were found to be negligent in that case. In addition, they demanded changes to official policy on gender-based violence and the allocation of greater resources to combating that scourge.

That 'advocacy' had the desired effect. Government and politicians capitulated, and new policy interventions have been proposed. This was widely greeted as a very good thing, and demonstrated that citizens can influence those in authority – a hallmark of a free society.

Or take another example: that of civil society groups that advocate for the government to improve conditions in schools. Some of these have gone as far as to take legal action to change government policy and influence the resource allocation decided by officials and politicians.

Mathekga proposes that such activity should be regulated, presumably by the very government and politicians who are the subject of such advocacy efforts. If that were allowed, this would hand those in power the ability to determine whether and on what issues civil society groups should be permitted to advocate. It is a reckless and dangerous proposal. Just imagine if the government had such powers during the state capture era: it could have completely undone the civil society lobby against that appalling corruption.

Alternatively, Mathekga proposes that civil society groups should not be able to advocate around individual government or political leaders and who these should be. But this proposition is absurd. Policies and laws are made by people and if civil society is to advocate better policies and laws it needs to include in those efforts the people who made them. This is a matter of public interest and importance. The state capture example is relevant, again, given that the influence of individual leaders such as former president Jacob Zuma was central to the broader problem.  

As a newspaper columnist, Mathekga should know better. Commentators in the media, including himself, were outspoken in their opposition to the policy decisions taken under the leadership of Zuma, and the broader media campaigned very enthusiastically for Zuma to be removed and replaced with President Cyril Ramaphosa. If civil society groups were banned from expressing views such as these, it’s unlikely that commentators would be treated differently by government.

The hook upon which Mathekga hangs these proposals is the complaint by former DA leader Mmusi Maimane that: '(the) Institute of Race Relations has pronounced itself from what it feels the DA must do and therefore if the Institute of Race Relations is going to be used to try and create external pressure on the DA, that is certainly something cheap'. Maimane's complaint is not materially different from what generations of politicians have said (not least to us) in the face of uncomfortable criticism and could have been lifted directly out of the playbook of the Zuma camp of the ANC, when that camp was exposed to civil society scrutiny.

One of the purposes of the IRR is to exert pressure on political and government leaders and it has done so for all of its 90 years. Throughout its history, its longest running campaign was to oppose race-based policy. In the past, we exposed and opposed the inhumanity of legislated discrimination under successive white-minority governments. The research we conducted to this end is still widely used by historians.

Today, we argue in favour of an empowerment and redress model that is based instead on socio-economic measures, so as to attack poverty and deprivation directly.

The IRR advocated against the state-capture excesses of the Zuma administration that culminated in his downfall. For a decade, it is been very critical of the policy direction the DA has taken, warning that this was bound to end in failure and would weaken the political opposition. Currently, it is advocating strongly against expropriation without compensation. Indeed, it is trying to place pressure on the African National Congress to adopt many of the ideas presented by the finance minister in the Treasury’s recent growth document.

Some months ago, it drove a campaign against AfriForum for the whitewashing of aspects of apartheid and of the legacy of Hendrik Verwoerd in a film it produced.

A relatively new campaign is to stop the National Health Insurance proposal and instead achieve universal healthcare via a voucher system and public-private partnerships.

It drives advocacy on education for parents to have more say in how their children are educated.

Perhaps most interestingly for the purposes at hand, we led opposition to proposed NGO legislation in the mid-1990s that would have extended the hand of the State over the sector. It might be relevant to remember that there were a number of NGOs that declined to become involved in this, perhaps feeling it would be 'impolitic' to do so. One wonders what civil society would look like today had we and a few others not fought this issue.

Each campaign had (or has) its critics because the campaigns are effective at creating public pressure on leaders to abandon bad ideas and adopt better ones – because these campaigns can really only work where public opinion falls in behind them.

Mathekga states that he's 'not very interested in the specific story of the IRR with respect to Maimane's complaint'. But that is a cop-out. If anything improper has transpired, anything that he feels should require government regulation, we invite him to state clearly what it was. We have been fascinated to read in the media over recent weeks about ‘putsches’ and all manner of illuminati-style conspiracies. To an extent, it is flattering to suggest that we have the power to take over a political party at will and we would claim credit for it if it were true – but it is not.   

Advocacy is a long-standing and vital process in the South African body politic. Whether one supports any position is for every individual South African to decide, not for the government to determine.

- Sara Gon is the head of strategic engagement at the IRR.