Research and Policy Brief: ANC hit-list also includes civil society and NGO sectors - 6th August 2010

Much is being made of the ANC’s efforts to thwart media freedom in South Africa. Few people have realised, however, that the party is similarly gunning for the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) sector in the country. When the ANC has finished dealing with the Media, it is quite likely that the civil society sector will be next on their agenda.

Next month the ANC will hold a policy conference to review the policies adopted by the party. In the run-up to that conference, the party has released a series of policy papers on its website. Much has been made of threats contained in those documents to curb media freedom in South Africa via a media tribunal. The ANC of course denies that the tribunal is in any way designed to restrict freedom of speech.

What has not been picked up by the Media is that another of the policy documents suggests a clampdown on the funding and activities of civil society organisations. The document entitled ‘Leadership renewal, discipline and organizational culture’ makes the long and very convoluted case that the party has suffered some setbacks or what it calls “organisational decay”. It goes on to argue that steps need to be taken to “restore unity and cohesion to the movement”. The document is so thickly interspersed with revolutionary jargon that it is at times difficult to follow its argument.

However, as best as we can make out, it goes on to argue that developments such as the communications revolution have led to a situation where groups other than ruling political parties are able to set the agenda for a country. It goes on to say that people do not have to wait for what it terms “official organisation channels” to talk to each other. It blames such communication for drowning out the “official voice of the organisation”.

The document goes on to suggest that the ANC must engage with this new reality. It then seems to suggest a number of ways of doing this. It reiterates the resolution taken at its 2007 Polokwane conference to put in place a “regulatory architecture for the private funding of political parties and civil society groups”. It suggests that the NEC of the ANC should propose an appropriate regulatory environment to control funding.

It goes on to suggest that money raised by private lobby groups is a potential threat. Here it asks the question whether the party is already in a position where vested interests and private money have come to exercise too great an influence over the future of the ANC itself.

While the argument is somewhat obtuse, it is clear that the ANC regards an independent civil society sector as threatening and that it feels that by regulating the funding of this sector it will be able to regulate its activities.

The ANC will of course deny this - just as it denies any intention to curb media freedom. But consider its plan for the Media closely and it follows that the party must equally regard independent civil society as a threat. For just as with the Media, civil society organisations are able to influence opinion in the country outside of the direct control of the ANC. It would be naïve for civil society organisations, even those that support the ANC, to dismiss the threat.

Remember too that in the late 1990s the ANC sought to introduce legislation that would allow the government to assume control of both the funding and operations of any civil society organisation if it deemed that organisation’s work to run contrary to the national interest. That legislation was defeated in a campaign led by this Institute with the support of a handful of other NGOs.

As an organisation, we would not be surprised if steps were taken within the next five years to try and control the funding of civil society organisations. These steps will purportedly be aimed at “strengthening the sector” and “ensuring accountability to the citizenry” while of course “deepening democracy”. But they will be nothing of the sort. Just as in the case of the media, these steps will be aimed at ensuring that the ANC as a party remains the sole “official channel” permitted to communicate ideas to South Africa’s people.

- Frans Cronje

Research and Policy Brief (RPB) is a new online analysis of economic and social trends in South Africa. It replaces the Institute's long running SAIRR Today column. It will be published regularly on the website of the South African Institute of Race Relations.