Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg)

24 May 2002

South Africa: The Two Faces of Civil Society

The New Partnership for Africa's Development appears to be key to the divisions in this sector

The ideological split in South Africa's civil society sector is likely to end in two independent processes being staged at the World Summit on Sustainable Development at the end of August.

The original Civil Society Indaba, from which the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and other major groups - including the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the South African NGO Coalition (Sangoco) - split, say they are rejecting the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), the country's development path, outright.

The Civil Society Indaba has a leftist, anti-globalisation focus. It has claimed there is "big brother" interference from the government in the new, mainstream South African Civil Society Forum set up by Cosatu and its allies.

The Forum will be responsible for convening the civil society sector gathering at Nasrec during the summit. It will be the largest component of the summit, with between 50 000 and 60 000 delegates.

The in-fighting in the civil society sector began about six months ago, when Cosatu began alleging weak management and a lack of financial controls of the Indaba, headed by Jacqui Brown. After two audits, Brown was suspended in March this year.

Cosatu, the SACC and Sangoco took the reins and constituted the South African Civil Society Forum.

But not all parties came on board. The Rural Services Development Network (RSDN) and some rural groups and NGOs allege that the Forum is being hijacked by the government via Cosatu.

The breakaway group appears to be headed by the RSDN. The group also has the First Peoples group within its ranks - although the Forum, headed by Sangoco leader Zakes Hlatswayo, is trying to persuade the First Peoples to come back on board.

The head of the RSDN, Eddie Cottle, says more organisations are joining the Indaba group. He has over the past few months claimed "big brother" interference in the Forum, implying that Cosatu is not independent from the government but is rather toeing the political line, especially that of Nepad.

A key mover and shaker in the civil society process and senior Cosatu official, Neva Makgetla, says at this point the Forum is indifferent to what the Cottles of the world are up to. "We are working so hard to make this work that I can't be bothered. These people are not relevant," she says.

"My view is that the logistics and facilitation are more important than these differences. Indications of success are that [delegates] leave South Africa happy. The RSDN and the other small groups are not building solidarity. They are being divisive, but at least they are not planning to disrupt the Nasrec process," she says.

It is, however, expected that the breakaway group will have some international support from other NGOs with similar ideological positions, probably anti-globalisation protestors, who might well take to the streets of Johannesburg.

Cottle says his group will not be in conflict with the main Forum group at Nasrec. "Our process is not conflicting with the formal United Nations process, but is a politically independent process that will result in a Global Indaba Forum."

His group is involved in the preparation of several "pre-summits", such as war and peace, women, labour, water and sanitation, health and debt and trade.

Cottle adds that his group's process is catering for the world's social movements - from the anti-globalisation movement to the landless and the anti-dams types - "who either do not recognise the UN or have no confidence that the Agenda 21 review [of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992] will have any meaning."

Cottle alleges that the "government-led process" of civil society is "chaotic".

"In essence our process is one that seeks to act as a political pole and contest the politics of civil society as a whole. We will have a people's declaration of all the world's social movements, together with a commonly defined plan of action, as our objectives of the Global Indaba," he says.

Makgetla responds: "They are a separate issue, not a competing thing. The summit is going to be so huge, so exciting, so full of different ideas, with over 1 000 different events going on, that they can't possibly replicate it.

She says her concern is logistics and facilitation. "Our policy process is not as strong as we'd like and we will be having a series of workshops over the next few weeks to sort this out."

She says in other countries governments organise the fund-raising and logistics for civil society, but in South Africa this is not happening because of a strict divide between the government and civil society. "So now we have policy people running around fund-raising and organising logistics."

"If we have chaotic facilitation and logistics aren't sorted out, then the whole summit will be useless. As South Africa we have to get this aspect right."

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