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A Shrinking Space for Civil Society in South Africa?

Research Project 2021 – 2023
Centre for Civil Society – University of KwaZulu-Natal
Funder: National Research Foundation
Ethical Clearance: University of KwaZulu-Natal
Researchers: Prof Shauna Mottiar, Dr Vuyiseka Dubula, Dr Danford Chibvongodze

Purpose of the Study
Civil society is closely linked with the liberal notion of deepening democracy in that it gives voice to diverse interests and serves as a watchdog over the state. In more radical interpretations however it is seen as contested terrain, serving dominant interests but also as a potential site from which to contest these interests to effect social justice.
A number of international studies have noted a ‘shrinking space’ for civil society (Anheier et al, 2018). This has been attributed to curtailing civil society organisation activities, increased regulation, repression and restrictions owing to increased and complicated reporting requirements (Civicus 2018; ICNL 2018; USAID 2017). South African studies have echoed this trend noting threats of closer regulation, findings of pre-emptive repression of protest (Duncan, 2016), intimidation of activists and the framing of social movements and some NGOs as ‘counter revolutionary’ (Sali, 2016).

This study seeks to examine whether civil society in South Africa is experiencing a ‘shrinking space’. This is relevant because the post-apartheid era has shown how critical civil society is in raising the voices of the marginalised e.g. through the social movements of the 2000s and holding the state to account e.g. through mobilisations against state capture. This study will form a starting point to assess whether civil society in South Africa is in danger and what steps should be taken to safeguard it.
The aim of this study is to produce research that will add to the existing literature on civil society in South Africa but also ascertain whether civil society is facing difficulties that may hinder / reverse democratic consolidation and challenge social justice campaigns.

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