South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 acted as a catalyst for a redefinition of relations between state and society. It looked like the emerging relationship between state and society would be highly desirable with the new government working closely with civil society, described as a “partnership” or “synergy” in the international development literature (Evans 1996). Institutions of the state were expected to undergo a fundamental transformation to operate in a more accountable and transparent manner. Civil society, in the form of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs), churches, civics and trade unions, no longer had to struggle against the apartheid regime but could work closely with the new government. Individuals inside and outside the new government shared a commitment to participatory democracy. As a result, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), government white papers, and the Constitution were not only written through a consultative process, but also specified that participation would play an important role in their implementation.
To date practitioners and researchers have failed to engage adequately with one of the most difficult and important realities characterising civil society and its relationship with the South African government. Most recently a study on the size and scope of the non-profit sector in South Africa concluded that the number of CBOs has proliferated to 53 per cent of the total number of non-profit organisations (Swilling and Russell, 2002:20). The main nongovernmental actors at the grassroots level are no longer NGOs, but CBOs, ranging from development committees to sewing and gardening clubs. If NGOs are praised internationally for being able to extend service delivery while contributing to the participatory nature of democracy, CBOs combine these advantages with a local and, because local people themselves rather than outsiders are driving the organisation, arguably a more legitimate base. Thus, at first glance, CBOs appear to be an ideal organisational form. Their role has become increasingly visible as part of the country’s transition, due to greater openness in development processes as well as their becoming direct recipients of donor funding for the first time.
CBOs have become active participants in the development process at the local level and have struggled to assert themselves in relation to outside organisations, including NGOs and local government. By adding a new actor to local dynamics, the introduction of local government in rural areas tended to complicate organisational relations further, contributing to local tensions.