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Publication Details

Reference
Greenstein, Ran  (2003) State, Civil Society and the Reconfiguration of Power in Postapartheid South Africa. Centre for Civil Society Research Report 8: 1-56.

Summary
This report looks at state and civil society in South Africa 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 report 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. The precise nature of these interactions should be established by historically specific analysis rather than in abstract terms that are valid across time and space. 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 the operation of 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 class or race terms). Alternatively they are seen as blank slates 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.

The analyses above offer different and opposed political viewpoints, but they share an understanding of politics as a forum for representation of 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), whichmay 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 prediscursive existence. Of course, social differences (between men and women, rich and poor people, people of various skin colours, etc.) 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. It is the aim of this report to contribute to the development of a theoretical approach based on this insight.

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