Investing in Justice

The report states that ‘€œOne of the most widely cited examples of this is the role of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in pushing for the provision of antiretrovirals to people living with HIV.’€ The report goes on to say that ‘€œMore deliberate efforts are needed to ensure that the voices of those who claim to represent the poor and marginalised can also be heard.’€

They are right. As we have recently seen with the Chief Justice debacle, an active and informed citizenry is a necessary feature of South Africa’€™s constitutional scheme, and one on which all the other arms of governance depend,. In political and legal commentaries reference is frequently made to the separate powers of the executive, the judiciary and the National Assembly. Occasionally, grudging recognition is also given to the media as a ‘€˜fourth estate’€™. We agree that each is meant to act as a check on the other in order to achieve a democratic balance that will ensure our Constitutional ideals are achieved.

But in these debates the role and forms of organisation of active citizenry are rarely considered.

This is short sighted. The Constitution’€™s entrenchment of political rights (in section 19) is not confined to the right of ‘€œEvery citizen’€ to join nor form political parties. It is expressly the right ‘€œto campaign for a political party or cause‘€. This right, combined with everyone’€™s rights to ‘€œfull and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms’€ is part of a democratic formula that is necessary to make democracy function.

The right to campaign for a cause is something that a range of social justice organisations take full advantage of. These organisations are political in so far as they challenge political decisions. But they are not political parties. They come from within civil society but are not necessarily involved in the delivery of services. They are often a thorn in the side of the state and political parties, because they make advocacy for an accountability and delivery their mandate.

Their efficacy is borne out by recent history. If we look at some of the defining challenges of our democracy, civil society activism has often at its heart.

TAC is one of the most obvious. As a result of its campaigns, it was possible to defeat the deadly hand of former President Mbeki’€™s AIDS denialism. Today South Africa can boast nationally and internationally of its extensive ARV treatment programme, the largest and most life saving on the globe.

But TAC has not been alone. Since 1994 organisations that campaign for social justice, including COSATU, have helped to highlight poverty and inequality; campaigned against gender based violence and corruption. They have popularised the Constitution and, when necessary, used the courts to counter a policy drift away from the poor and marginalised. They have repeatedly warned of the consequences of growing inequality.

The ‘€˜Right 2 Know’€™ campaign against the Protection of Information Bill is another example. Some of the worst excesses of the Bill would not have been defeated if civil society had not been prepared to organise in a space where others were initially only prepared to whisper.

But unfortunately this vital part of our democratic architecture is under threat. In recent weeks senior politicians, and even soon to be Chief Justice Mogoeng have sought to paint it as some sort of suspicious and subversive third force, over resourced and co-ordinated, pursuing a hidden agenda that seeks to protect privilege and wealth. This could not be further from the truth. But in the politics of power truth is not what matters.

Let’€™s look at just one central issue. Funding. Over the years, organisations like TAC have almost entirely been dependent on foreign funding. But this is fast drying up in the face of the global economic crisis. Some are contemplating closing down. Unlike lobbies of the rich and powerful, or political parties with their opaque but large sources for funding, social justice organisations come from a constituency that is impoverished and unable to fund its own interests. Today social justice advocacy is being strangled by its inability to access funds.

This problem of funding human rights and advocacy organisations is not a problem for these organisations alone. It is a problem that belongs to our democracy and to all those who believe in a just society, or who understand that tolerance of growing injustice and inequality will lead to a society, with growing disease, corruption, crime and political instability.  

What and where might the solutions be found?

Each year the government doles out billions of Rand to the National Development Agency (NDA), a body that was set up to fund non-governmental organisations. According to a recent report, in 2009 the NLDTF had R8 billion available for disbursement. Much of it was not disbursed at all.

As early as 1997 it established the statutory framework for the Lotto and created the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF). Both these institutions are intended as channels for social investment. But both focus only on service delivery and charity. They do not fund advocacy or public education about human and legal rights.

They have also been found to be corrupt and badly managed, at times acting as unaccountable gate keepers of large amounts of money, with leaders who are deployed to ensure that what might be perceived as ‘€˜threats’€™ to the government are not funded.

On the other hand, over the last several decades, corporate social investment (CSI) has grown significantly. In 2009/10 it was estimated that R5.4 billion was donated in CSI. Even if CSI is not a legal requirement, the King III report shows that it is an expected part of business.

But CSI manager admit that they have hardly a cent available for human rights or social justice activism. They admit to being scared of politics or controversy. This fear, however, does not stop large sums of undisclosed funding to political parties.

Big business defends its lack of funding for human rights by arguing that CSI must invest in ‘€˜tangibles’€™ and ‘€˜measurables’€™, like education or health services. They should. But it is arguable that much of the money donated in CSI ends up being wasted. Giving in a vacuum, without accountability and oversight by rights literate communities, often leads to the loss, theft and disrepair of the goods they supply. Computers in schools lie idle or broken, books are stolen.

At this time in our history an independent and activist civil society is vital to our futures. But major social justice organisations are being threatened politically and strangled financially. They are in danger of becoming extinct. Democracy will be weaker as a result. Demagogues and predators will have an easier path. The poor will be without watchdogs or advocates. Is this the way we want to go?

Mark Heywood is the  Executive Director of  SECTION27.

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