May 19, 2007

The Dearth of Civil Society

Filed under: Theorising Practice_May 2007 — newritings @ 11:37 am

Mr. Masondo sir, well done! You have truly achieved in making Johannesburg a ‘world class city’ and now, because of the great infrastructure and in spite of the incompetent police and the high crime rates, all the international non-governmental organizations that are in the business of saving Africa have headquartered here.

But you know, your Worship, you would not know that you were in Africa walking into one of those INGO offices. Sure there is the Johannesburg street address, the token African art in reception but that is the sum of all that is South African. No. I lie. Sometimes these international organizations even have a head that is from this country but sir, the neck; the torso and sometimes even the thighs are international (read from Western Europe or North America). The only other African thing in these organizations are the knees and feet as embodied by the receptionists and the cleaners and, if we are lucky, some lowly so-called associates all earning less than a dollar a day. One wonders whether in this world class African city, these well-meaning International NGOs could not find some world-class employees too. I mean really Mr. Mayor, a Policy and Advocacy Officer on HIV/AIDS from Surrey when we have unemployed graduates from Soweto who have seen their mothers and siblings die from the disease?

But they are not always ignorant of Africa and its plight, these great Western expatriates saving Africa. Even if they are staying in Sandton, drinking in Melville, and have never been to Alex, sometimes they genuinely try to get the locals involved. Like the other time I was working for one of them as a lowly associate and they knew I also worked on a voluntary basis with a CBO (Community Based Organisation). It was me they came to for profiles of grandmothers who were guardians to HIV orphans (preferably staying in the world-famous Soweto) for a program on CNN. I was happy to know they cared. I drew up profiles. They chose one grandmother and guess what? She was seen by the whole world on an international platform in Scotland at the G8. A grandmother I had picked nogal. Needless to say after she returned home, she went back to the CBO for her monthly rations for her orphaned grandchildren and the International NGO has never asked of her since. But one should not complain. After all, the world needs to know these things.

Incidentally Mr. Mayor, I cannot say for sure, but I believe this INGO might have received some funding from this situation. Funds that were used for greater good like paying for travel and accommodations so spokespersons of the International NGO can tell the world of this woman and other similar stories. These funds also probably came in handy for a little donation to the Nelson Mandela Foundation so the great statesman could donate a quote in return to be used for full-page advertisements in important publications like New York Times because sir, the world has to umm…know.

But I do not mean to be cynical about our saviours from the West, Sir, after all, where would our own civil society organizations be without these international CSOs? It is after all these international CSOs that are willing to pay wicked amounts of money to the home-brewed CSOs to go on international platforms and mouth whatever it is they want us to say. The World Social Forums, the WTOs – they will pay for it all if we know our place and repeat the lines that we are told by the policy & advocacy officers on poverty, ‘poverty kills a child every three seconds,’ ‘1.2 billion live on less than a dollar a day’ or whatever they want us to say. Ask them for funding to feed children at a rally however and you will get, ‘we can pay for everything but we do not pay for food.’ Hellloo? You want a crowd at a rally but you won’t feed the multitudes? Of course it is then that South African CSOs come up with creative ways of making sure the bill for an advert/fliers/whatever it is they will pay for is high enough so that eventually the food can be covered. It is deceitful. May be even a little corrupt. It might even seem like some form of colonization, Mr. Mayor, but really, how different is it from the dance your government plays with donor nations and Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) and also the World Trade Organisation?

As you can see, dealing with these International NGOs, it generally leaves South African CSOs unable to speak about the real bread and butter issues in South Africa (well unless it is about HIV/AIDS; they will always fund for that!). This may just be one of the reasons our once thriving civil society is in shambles, failing to address the issues of the people of this country that it should really be addressing.

But wait a minute Mr. Mayor, could that have been your government’s plan all along to ensure that civil society in the country was kept very civil? To create a world-class city, and get INGOs here so they can distract South African civil society from addressing important issues like, ‘why the bucket system is not fully scrapped’ or ‘when our people can expect to have proper housing.’ Now these voices have been muted because they do not have the funding to cause enough of a ruckus and as the INGOs often say, ‘you have to have a global perspective’ and Johannesburg or even South Africa is not global enough, is it? You are a genius, Sir. You, and your government.

* By Zukiswa Wanner


  1. […] by Conrad Jardine · A discussion on SANGOCO: Hassen Lorgat (SANGOCO) and Kumi Naidoo (CIVICUS) · The dearth of civil society, by Zukiswa […]

    Pingback by Contents of Theorising Practice, May 2007 issue « newritings — June 15, 2007 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

  2. Ms Wanner, I was hoping I could say gone are the days of the lowly paid interns, volunteers and locals working at INGOS here in SA (cloaked in plural but we specifically know one don’t we? wink*) but several years later it’s still the same, different faces but still most come from you know where. But the receptionist, the cleaners, the interns (mostly Africans) are still paid and treated like …. have lots of shiz to tell but only if you buy me coffee 🙂

    Comment by K — July 6, 2009 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

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