working class civil society

Russell Grinker grinker at
Thu Nov 11 22:20:28 PST 1999

Peter wrote:
> While there is something to be said for the argument (and Patrick B. could
> probably say it with more force), there is very often a danger that
> participation in 'civil society' could mean little more than a talk shop
> organised on the basis of foreign donor funding.

Patrick responded: (That debate, by the way, just transpired within the relatively important SA NGO Coalition, and it appears that the left position, aimed at social struggle not neoliberal-populism, has won out. At least rhetorically.) (Cde Grinker, control yourself please.)

Patrick, for those of us in this great civil society of ours but not in the know, could you please elaborate? All I know is that the most active region, the Eastern Cape, was, on some bureaucratic pretext, not even given a SANGOCO executive seat. I'm always concerned that there's confusion between reality and wishful thinking in much of the talk about civl society and civic movements in South Africa.

The only recent evidence of NGO activity that I've noticed, apart from stuff around the WTO (= Patrick mostly anyway), has been around the issue of rape and crime, with many NGOs (often just a few self-appointed vocal individuals speaking for nobody but themselves) in the forefront of calls for more effective state repressive machinery. It seems peculiar to me that, rather than acting as a counterweight to the state (the old argument) and providing continuity with old struggle traditions, NGOs seem to be most active in calls for a more interventionist and repressive state. Current calls include placing the onus of proving innocence on the accused in rape cases.

The Commonwealth circus currently on in Durban is also an important indicator of the way things are going. NGOs there (taking part through the increasingly common official NGO forum at such events) seem to be most vocal in calls for international policing of "undemocratic" and "corrupt" governments and their expulsion or suspension from the Commonwealth. This once again seems to give the signal for Western intervention to punish these regimes. I believe that the process of co-optation of NGOs as useful tools of government has gone pretty far already. And this includes South Africa where, despite Patrick's valiant attempts and his desperate search for exceptions, it is clear the big civil society battalions have mostly become mere fronts for business.


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