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Kotzé, Hermien (2004) Responding to the growing socio-economic crisis? A review of civil society in South Africa during 2001 and 2002 . Centre for Civil Society Research Report 19: 1-27.

The idea of NGOs as value-driven facilitators of change has been adversely affected by the decision of many to implement the welfare, social-net programmes of institutions that are committed to economic liberalisation and concerned to reduce its social cost. At the same time, fragmentation and competition has grown amongst NGOs and encouraged further division within a historically heterogeneous community. The millennium begins with the challenge to NGOs to reflect critically on this reality.
(Pearce, 2000:36)

The acute sense of socio-economic crisis in South Africa provides the primary context for a review of civil society in the period 2001/2002. If anyone still entertained doubts about the effects of the government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), the last two years have witnessed the further unfolding of many of the negative predictions made by concerned social and political commentators since the adoption of the strategy in 1996. Similar to many other countries that have adopted neo-liberal economic policies, GEAR has had a devastating impact on the lives of millions of poor and low-income families in South Africa. According to Pearce, globalisation, driven by the values of neo-liberalism, has seriously harmed the anti-poverty and anti-exploitation struggle in the world today. The benefits to the few have not compensated for the increased poverty, inequality, and uncertainty which many have experienced (2000: 36).

Although neo-liberalism came to South Africa relatively late, it was implemented rapidly, with the Ministers of Finance and Trade and Industry committing the country to timeframes that were far shorter than generally required for the implementation of international trade agreements. More often than not, this led to significant job losses, particularly in the manufacturing industry, as the country was flooded with cheap imports, and these job losses have contributed to the alarming increase in poverty in the country.

The implementation of fiscal austerity measures as part of the standard requirements of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have contributed to a slowdown in the delivery of basic services, and influenced the state’s controversial cost recovery policies. This has placed an undue burden on the poor, who face increasing costs of basic goods and services at a time when their income is being steadily eroded or even completely removed. When the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS is considered, and the impoverishing effect that this has on affected households, it appears that there is a full-scale socio-economic crisis in the making.

This paper seeks to examine the dimensions of this crisis, along with the responses (or non-responses) of civil society organisations (CSOs) . There is also the question of a growing divide between organisations within civil society - most notably between the bigger, more professionalised NGOs, primarily involved in service delivery, and the growing number of smaller, less formalised CBOs that tend to be more survivalist and increasingly oppositional in nature. The joint Centre for Civil Society and School of Public and Development Management study on ‘The Size and Scope of the Non-Profit Sector in South Africa’ estimates that this latter category forms 53% of the total of 98 920 voluntary sector organisations in the country (Swilling & Russell, 2002: 20). Possible links between such community-based initiatives and the new social movements will be examined, with the latter presently forming the subject of a number of major research projects .

In the period under review, there has been a more visible manifestation of popular discontent, as witnessed in widespread protests and marches around the country. The high profile marches and other events that took place around the World Conference on Racism (WCAR) in 2001 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, have been particularly significant. Poor people, together with newly-emerging community leadership, began to make the links between GEAR and the hardships they experience (for examples of this, see Ashwin Desai’s book, We are the Poors - Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa, 2002).

Local community struggles, and more notably emerging social movements, increasingly articulate the links between macro-economic policies, globalisation and increased poverty and hardship. Many have formed networks across national boundaries and forged alliances with similar movements and struggles in other parts of the developing world, as well as with the international anti-globalisation movement. This has occurred particularly in the land sector and in movements against privatisation.

This paper will not provide a detailed account of events and developments in civil society in 2001/2002, but rather aims to highlight some of the choices and challenges facing this sector in a rapidly changing political and socio-economic environment. Generally based on observations and impressions, it hopes to open up discussion and debate in areas where there has often been an uncritical acceptance of consent and consensus. To this end, the paper is exploratory in nature and tends to pose questions rather than providing answers.

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