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Greenstein, Ran  (2003) Civil Society, Social Movements and Power in South Africa. . RAU Sociology Seminar Series (Fourth term) 12 September: 1-40.

Civil Society, Social Movements and Power in South Africa


This paper is part of a larger project that examines transition processes in post-apartheid South Africa. It looks at state and civil society in the context of local and global social and political developments, with a focus on notions of power and democracy. In contrast to conventional political analysis, which looks at state and civil society as mutually exclusive and internally consolidated sectors, this paper regards them as spaces of power. Within their boundaries political identities, principles of organisation, and modes of operation are formed, shaped and modified in interaction between actors and institutions. Central to the analysis presented here is the concept of power, defined as a set of practices and discourses that govern the interactions between social actors. The identities and interests of these actors are shaped in relation to contests over agendas, strategies, meanings, and resources. Power thus has several dimensions, of which three are of particular importance. These are: social power (access by individuals and groups to resources and control over their allocation), institutional power (strategies employed by groups and institutions in exercising administrative and legal authority), and discursive power (shaping social, political and cultural agendas through contestations over meanings).

Scholarly literature on transitions in contemporary South Africa focuses on the social dimension of power, discusses to a limited and insufficient extent the institutional dimension, and largely ignores the discursive dimension of power. This means that power is incompletely understood, and that one of its crucial dimensions, which makes sense of the others, is missing from the analysis. As a result we are left with a truncated picture in which state and civil society are regarded as actors that operate on behalf of other social forces (usually defined in race or class terms). Alternatively they are seen as blank spaces that merely reflect conflicts and interests that are generated from outside their boundaries, in the economy and society at large.

Thus, for example, some left-wing activists regard the state as an agent of capital, operating wittingly and unwittingly to further local and global business interests, while civil society in the form of unions, NGOs and new social movements represents the interests of workers and the dispossessed. Conservative observers regard the South African state as a tool in the hands of an elite black racial group serving to empower and enrich themselves at the expense of established white interests and the black masses. Supporters of the government like to see themselves as a vanguard representing the black population (elite and masses alike), who had been denied political rights by the apartheid regime, and are now moving to assume their full role in the new political dispensation, and so on.

Civil society, social movements and power in South Africa Ran Greenstein Analyses such as those above offer different and opposed political viewpoints, but they share an understanding of politics as a forum for representation and struggle between consolidated interest groups. What is missing from such analysis, however, is precisely what is unique and interesting about the state and civil society as spaces of power: the extent to which they create and shape rather than merely reflect pre-existing social interests and identities; the specific organisational logics developed and deployed within their boundaries; the policy debates informed by discourses of democracy, modernity, rights, representation and popular participation; the contestation over the meanings of widely-used concepts (such as development, empowerment, transformation and capacity building), which may be interpreted and applied in many different ways; and the local and global alliances formed between actors in different locations, which undermine the notion of internally homogenous and externally bounded sectors.

In brief, the limitation of conventional approaches, of the left and the right varieties alike, is that politics as an independent field of action, discourse and analysis disappears from view. In its place an analysis of social forces is conducted, as if these forces had a meaningful pre-political and pre-discursive existence. Of course, social differences exist independently of our conceptualisations of them, but they become bases for the formation of identities and interests and for social mobilisation only when they are endowed with meaning by discursive-political processes.

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