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Habib, Adam  (2003) State-Civil Society Relations in Post-Apartheid South Africa . RAU Sociology Seminar Series (Fourth term) 10 October: 1-13.

State-Civil Society Relations in Post-Apartheid South Africa

The basic twin expectations of government are that NGOs will firstly, continue to
act as monitors of the public good and safeguard the interests of the disadvantaged
sections of society. This performance of this social watch role requires both
transparency and accountability on the part of NGOs. The government’s second
expectation is that NGOs will assist in expanding access to social and economic
services that create jobs and eradicate poverty among the poorest of the poor. This
requires cost effective and sustainable service delivery (Zola Skweyiya, Quoted in
Barnard and Terreblanche 2001:17).

For many of the activists … working in different spaces and having different
strategies and tactics, there was a binding thread. There was unmitigated opposition
to the economic policies adopted by the ANC…. Activists spoke of how the right-
wing economic policies lead to widespread and escalating unemployment, with
concomitant water and electricity cut-offs, and evictions even from the “toilets in the
veld” provided by the government in the place of houses. More importantly, there
was general agreement that this was not just a question of short-term pain for long-
term gain. The ANC had become a party of neo-liberalism. The strategy to win the
ANC to a left project was a dead end. The ANC had to be challenged and a
movement built to render its policies unworkable. It seems increasingly unlikely that
open confrontation with the repressive power of the post-apartheid state can be
avoided (Ashwin Desai, 2002: 147).

Two quotations, two very different visions of post-apartheid state-civil society relations.
The articulators of these visions have as their goal the empowerment of, and service
delivery to, the poor. Both individuals are located in different institutional settings. The
first is a cabinet minister responsible for the Department of Social Development. The
second is a civil society activist, one among many leaders in the new and emerging civic
struggles that are challenging local governments in their imposition of a cost-recovery
paradigm to the provision of social services. Which vision is appropriate for the
conditions of post-apartheid South Africa?

Both quotations reflect at least one element of our post-apartheid reality. But the absolute
and categoric character of their visions make them inappropriate models for a
contemporary state-civil society relationship. Implicitly these visions imagine a
homogenous civil society. They project a single set of relations for the whole of civil
society. Is civil society, however, not plural by its very nature? And, should not this
plurality infuse our understandings of state-civil society relations in contemporary South

This chapter takes as its departing point a definition of civil society that celebrates its
plurality. It recognises that the set of institutions within this entity will reflect diverse and
even contradictory political and social agendas. As a result state-civil society relations
will reflect this plurality. Some relationships between civil society actors and state
institutions will be adversarial and conflictual, while others will be more collaborative
and collegiate. This state of affairs should not be bemoaned. Instead it should be
celebrated for it represents the political maturing of our society. Under apartheid, the
adversarial-collaborative divide largely took a racial form with the bulk of ‘white civil
society’ establishing collegiate relations with the state, and the majority of ‘black civil
society’ adopting a conflictual mode of engagement. This racial divide began to blur in
the transition period as significant sections of ‘white civil society’ began to distance
themselves from the apartheid regime. In the contemporary era, the racial divide has all
but disappeared with adversarial and collegiate relations extending across the entire ambit
of civil society.

Elsewhere I have defined civil society as “the organized expression of various interests
and values operating in the triangular space between the family, state, and the market”
(Habib and Kotze 2002:3). This definition conceptualizes civil society as an entity
distinct from both the market and the state. Of course traditional Hegelian definitions of
the term include the market. I am, however, persuaded by Jean Cohen and Andrew
Arato’s comprehensive and defining work on the subject, which makes a coherent case
for why the market should be excluded from the definition of civil society. For Cohen
and Arato, the actors of what they call ‘political’ and ‘economic’ society control and
manage state power and economic production and this imparts to them a different
strategic purpose and function from civil society actors. In their words, political and
economic actors cannot “subordinate (their) strategic and instrumental criteria to the
patterns of normative integration and open-ended communication characteristic of civil
society” (Cohen and Arato 1992: ix). This then makes it essential for civil society to be
analytically distinguished from “both a political society of parties, political organizations,
and political publics (in particular, parliaments) and an economic society composed of
organizations of production and distribution, usually firms, cooperatives, (and)
partnerships...” (Cohen and Arato 1992: ix).

This chapter is divided into three separate sections. The first, which serves as a backdrop
to the analysis, describes the set of relations between the state and civil society agencies
in the apartheid era. This is followed by a description of the initiatives undertaken by the
state, sometimes independently and at other times at the instance of other actors, to
redefine the post-apartheid civil society arena. The chapter, then, analyses how different
civil society actors have responded to these initiatives and to the challenges of the post-
apartheid moment, and how this has informed their relations with the state. Finally, the
conclusion reflects on current assessments of, and advances my own view on,
contemporary state-civil society relations in South Africa.

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