What the UK could learn from Cape Town's civil society

Tessa Gooding
Opinion
Before I came to South Africa, I was warned how dangerous the place was. I was asked, ''Why do you think so many South Africans are emigrating to Australia'' and, ''Are you sure you really want to go there?'' I'm relieved this negativity didn't stop me. If you don't come to South Africa because of fear, you are missing out.

South Africa is not only an incredibly beautiful place because of its nature, it is a beautiful place because of its strong sense of civil society.

In a market-driven society, the individual entrepreneurial spirit is often encouraged and praised. It is no bad thing for people to be enterprising in order to make a living for themselves. But it is sad when being an entrepreneur is the only option available in order to meet your most basic of needs. A democratic society should have a responsibility to ensure a decent standard of living for all. However, it is often the case that the dominant ideology promotes individualism to the detriment of collective and community action. 

After being in South Africa for about a month, I went to a talk hosted by the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre at the District Six Museum. The topic for the evening was Social Cohesion in Post-apartheid South Africa. Giving the key note speech was ANC Senior Policy Advisor for the Social Sector Mr Lawrence Matemba.

Mr Matemba was a typical bureaucrat, speaking around issues without saying very much at all. I could sum up his speech as him saying, “We’ve got a lot of things wrong by rushing into things and being too focused on outcomes.” His only concrete suggestion of the evening was that, “To improve the badly performing schools, we should get the teachers from good schools to teach the students from the bad schools one Saturday every month.” This, of course, doesn’t even begin to address the the problem. The evening became interesting, however, when the audience was given a chance to speak.

Everyone who spoke had a completely different accent. At most talks like these back home in South East England, most would have a similar southern middle class accent, with a handful of regional and international accents thrown into the audience mix. I've noticed a much richer, diverse public discourse and public engagement with politics since being in Cape Town. People spoke of the need for personal responsibility in taking collective action to hold the government to account, particularly in the area of education. One man commented that it was easier to be a social activist during apartheid. He said it is always easier to be anti a regime but it is harder to hold a democratic government to account and propose solutions. I've noticed that many social movements in Cape Town seem to be leading the way in this regard.

When I was volunteering at the Social Justice Coalition, I heard SJC employees and Khayelistha residents Phumeza and Axolie speak about the challenges the community face and some of the things the SJC are achieving. I hadn't had the chance to speak to either of them much in the office, I'd only learnt about the SJC's work through their publications. However, hearing them speak with such conviction about why they believe peaceful protests are the only way to achieve real long-term progress really brought the issues to life.

I can understand why many people in South Africa are angry, and so angry that they resort to violent protests. Following 18 years of democracy many people are still struggling to make ends meet. People even living in cities are struggling to feed themselves and their children. They have to resort to defecating outdoors in a public place and risk stabbings, rape, assault and murder, just when they are trying to get water for their families from one of the community’s taps. They are angry because at the same time as they face these challenges, others live comfortably and politicians are not subtle about their corruption and greed. President Jacob Zuma exemplifies this, with over R200 million being spent, much of it public money, on the upgrade of his homestead in Kwazulu-Natal, while nearly half of South Africans live in the country's definition of poverty.

However, Phumeza spoke of why she thinks violent protests do not lead to progress. She recognised that they get press attention and that a politician will make a public statement, make a small gesture and perhaps someone will be sacked and held responsible for government failings, but she insists that the root causes of problems are not addressed when change comes about like this. The SJC organise regular public and peaceful protests calling for better service delivery, such as decent toilets and policing. Change may be slower like this, but by working with the community, employing 15 community advocates to go door-to-door to educate community members about the fact that the local municipality has a constitutional mandate to provide certain services and yet are failing its residents by not fulfilling their obligations, they are empowering people to improve their situation through holding the government to account. And this approach has successes, with breakthroughs in both the SJC's Safe Sanitation and Justice for All campaigns this year.

Back home in the UK, there are various campaign groups such as 38 Degrees that have become very popular in the mainstream. They have achieved some fantastic things, securing important protective amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill that will see 49% of the National Health Service opened up to the private sector, and raising awareness to ensure that companies sponsoring the Olympic Games like Coca Cola, McDonald's and Visa would not be exempt from UK corporation tax. However, more often than not, campaign groups such as these are representing the desires of middle class Britain.

In the case of 38 Degrees it is run democratically with members of the public voting on what campaigns they want them to run. But as David Gillon pointed out on their blog, in a system where the most popular campaign suggestions get prioritised, it can be difficult for marginalised voices to be heard. This is very much the case in Britain as a whole. Most campaigns that are given a voice in mainstream debates are about preventing changes that will impact negatively on the middle classes – issues specifically experienced by marginalised groups in society, often do not get the chance to be aired, let alone heard.

This is why, I believe, the 2011 riots occurred in England. According to an OECD report in December 2011, income inequality among working-age people has risen faster in Britain than in any other rich nation since the mid-1970s. They believe this is due to the fact that although spending on public services in Britain had gone up in the past decade, at the same time benefits to the poor were worth less and taxes were less redistributive. This means that the youth of England are increasingly marginalised by a lack of support, opportunities, inspiration and hope but most worryingly they have few ways to express themselves. And without a means of expression, people explode.

The voice of marginalised groups in Cape Town is what has taught me the most during my time here. As the dedicated General Secretary of the farm workers' union CSAAWU Karel Swart told me, ''I find the De Doorns protests inspiring. They represent the frustrations of the workers. I believe that democracy is for everybody. But if decent living conditions are not created, there will be a bloodbath.'' But this bloodbath can be avoided, and is likely to be avoided, the more people are encouraged and given a way to have a voice in civil society, so that they can hold the government to account and advance their political, economic and social rights. Swart told us how workers have lost faith in the current government. ”They had so much hope.”

Organisations such as the farm workers' union CSAAWU, the Social Justice Coalition, Equal Education, which campaigns for better schooling, and others are giving people an avenue to be heard. These organisations are not just speaking for people, they are providing practical support and getting people involved so that they can not only take personal responsibility but can also take collective action. Many involved in social movements in Britain could learn a great deal from their approach. Democracy should be for all. Change can come about but meaningful change must be from the ground up. People need to be given ways to get involved, so that together, we can hold our governments to account to improve the opportunities and resources available to all.

Tessa Gooding is a visitor to South Africa who has been volunteering at GroundUp, the Social Justice Coalition and Work for Love. Follow her on Twitter @TessaGooding

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