working class civil society

Mr P.A. Van Heusden pvanheus at
Fri Nov 12 06:57:47 PST 1999

On Fri, 12 Nov 1999, Patrick Bond wrote:

> > Patrick, for those of us in this great civil society of ours but not in
> the
> > know, could you please elaborate? ...
> > 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.
> > Russell
> Please elaborate? A desperate search for exceptions? Did you
> miss those 21kb of lefty civil society struggles against the 1994-99
> neolib policies and personalities of the SA state? (I didn't even get
> to anti-corporate and anti-IMF/WB campaigning...)

There was a lot of struggle from the side of the Environmental Justice Networking Forum around the CONNEP environmental policy process as well, but that struggle (which I was part of as a member of Earthlife Africa) definitely had elements of containment, of being a show put on for the 'community'. The EJNF, as a network, has played a good role in linking together and educating people around issues they have not known about before (e.g. around water and waste issues in the Western Cape), but, in my experience, most of the 'left' energy has come from outside the NGO sector.

I don't know if Russell thinks the working class is dead - I certainly see little evidence for a funeral in South Africa, and the bit you quoted from your book about 'pressures from below' pretty accurately seems to describe the state of simmering agitation which characterises current South African politics. But on the issue of containment:

Co-option doesn't come much clearer, in my mind, than the co-option of the Western Cape NGO coalition into supporting the 'Starfish' 'job training scheme. 'Starfish' was a scheme supported by local newspapers and business, with services provided by CRIC, the Careers Research and Information Centre. The idea was that unemployed youths would work *for free* in various capacities, as a kind of work experience. At the end of 3 months, they would get a certificate (wow! and no doubt they would be unemployed again). Co-incidentially, when this scheme was hatched, CRIC was under severe funding pressure. 'Starfish' secure some NGO workers' jobs for a couple more months.

(I understand that the national executive of the NGO Coalition was opposed to the 'Starfish' scheme, and told the W.Cape structures this.)

SANGOCO claims to be 'working for participatory democracy, people centred development and the voluntary sector' - these words worry me on two levels:

1) People in the NGO sector, particularly those who work full-time in the sector, seem to deal with politics in an 'us/them' manner - i.e. we are doing development, for them. The political involvement, and political thinking, of NGO workers themselves is often not questioned - sometimes there is almost a feeling that NGO workers should remain uninvolved, because becoming involved in politics themselves would be 'telling people what to do'. These kind of attitudes tend to paper over the contradictions involved in trying to take forward 'radical' politics while being funded by foreign donors - the two horns of the dillema are seperated out into 'non-radical' development workers and 'potentially radical' communities.

2) NGO speak is a major problem in South Africa - what precisely does SANGOCO's mission statement mean, for instance? In the world of NGOs and funding reports, a critique of capitalism and oppression seems to turn into a critique of neo-liberalism and poverty - a kind of language which is much more ambigious, and maintains the kind of 'developmentalism' I spoke about in the previous paragraph.

Apart from being occassionally incomprehensible (I can testify to that, since Rebecca, my wife, often edits stuff from people in NGOs), and often very difficult to explain to people not involved in 'the scene', I am often concerned that this common lingo defines a community which is ultimately very self-referential.

What I think Russell is getting at is that NGOs have played a powerful role in precisely capturing the 'pressure from below' you talk about in your book, and restricting its effects to a 'politics of engagements'. I am inclined to agree - particularly when the space defined by NGOs is often physically, and 'discursively' (i.e. in how people talk) seperated from day to day of the very people it is 'meant to help'.

At the risk of being called an 'unreconstructed Trotskyist' (which I certainly am not), I tend to think that interaction outsides the boundaries of the defined political institutions in South Africa is vital. The ISM, in Cape Town, has run various series' of political educationals for our members (and anyone else who would want to come), with the aim not of promulgating a 'political line', but rather aimed at developing people's political understanding, and empowering people to engage politically, to express themselves without having to adopt, and potentially be incorporated in, the discourse of the various spaces of containment in South African society (the ANC Alliance, the NGO scene, etc).

It seems rather unfashionable at present to try and develop working class political organisations (I've been criticised for, apparently, saying 'what about the workers?' too much at various 'coalition' meetings), but I think that it is precisely a kind of politics based around building up people politically, engaging with their 'common sense' in an effort to build class consciousness, which is what Gramsci was talking about when he talked about fighting for hegemony.

Grassroots organising - based on rank-and-file discussions within the unions, and grassroots discussion and action in working class communities - isn't going to offer up results overnight, but it is the only option for getting a start on the working class's self-emancipation.

Peter -- Peter van Heusden : pvanheus at : PGP key available Criticism has torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower. - Karl Marx

NOTE: I do not speak for the HGMP or the MRC.

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