Thursday 4 December 2014

OGP & Civil Society: A snapshot from South Africa

“we’re going to sing from the same hymn sheet. We will do it in every province and take over the parliament if necessary”. 
“you know it’s not like we haven’t done this before in South Africa. It’s not like we haven’t led a fight for change. Or transformed our country. We just have to rediscover that. We are capable.”
Two voices that stood out for me at a meeting of South African civil society, gathered together by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as part of their outreach to engage citizens with this initiative. Passion, frustration, anger but creativity were the hallmarks of an intense debate about how to make the OGP live up to its name, in a land that should be so much further down that path.

The idea was to spend two days together; the first with Government representatives including a Deputy Minister, and the second to forge a civil society agenda to rally around in pursuit of genuine participatory governance, a new relationship where people could play a meaningful role in shaping the decisions that affect their communities.

South Africa is a fascinating country, and never more so when listening to a group of people who are fired by a desire to change the world. These include many who themselves fought the fight against apartheid but also includes those for whom that era is something they can only read or learn about. But those for whom the freedom struggle is something their parents did, that legacy still guides: the second quote above was from a young woman who was born around the same time as people queued for hours to vote for the first time.

And yet. And yet. There is a very high level of cynicism here, perhaps beyond that which is healthy, but it is borne of what they consistently say they feel are repeated examples of being ignored by a political class they regard as increasingly remote. Scandals like this one don’t do anything to help, either.

Whether that sense of remoteness is right or wrong, what is inspiring is that such a group of committed people – from trades unions, NGOs, faith groups and others - would come together and invest precious time and resources into making the most of what OGP could in theory contribute to a process of real change. What I heard were calls for action by citizens from across the nine provinces of this country to redress the criticism that has been made of the OGP in South Africa thus far: that it exists on paper but in reality little or nothing has changed; by taking clear ownership of local decision making structures. Turning up. Organising. Demanding to be heard and waving the OGP action plan at officials if they resisted. This was harking back to the proud traditions of previous decades but in a way that was relevant to today.

South Africa is now co-chair of OGP and will assume the chair in October 2015. That year is a big one in development terms anyway as the long heralded SDG framework is unveiled. We know already that governance will be part of that new way of doing development. Given South Africa’s key position at that time, and the doubts that have been raised not least following speeches such as that given by President Zuma, who questioned the role of the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism and emphasised “the character and nature of the OGP as a non-binding voluntary initiative.” - this will be a time for OGP to either prove its worth or be proven not to have it, at least in this country.

But from what I saw at this meeting, which met at the Nelson Mandela Foundation at the former leaders' own house in Johannesburg, this movement of citizens take that struggle as their inspiration, adapt it to today and together are a force to be reckoned with. If these people can’t make this work, nobody can.


  1. Interesting insights - it’s true that civil society in SA has the potential of being very effective in the OGP process, just like it did during the apartheid and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) days. However, in order to become its vibrant self again, this sector has a few challenges it needs to overcome first. These include issues of lack of funding & resources, lack of strong leadership within its various sectors, among others. One that I would like to point out specifically is the challenge of resources and funding - the majority of NGOs find themselves with a fragile funding base while other are on the verge of scaling down or shutting operations altogether. This is largely due to most donors deeming SA as a middle earning country and the need to re-allocate resources to the so-called emerging economies or marginalised countries. After the end of apartheid and subsequently, the government’s new commitments to provide ARVs in the country, much of the money that was donated directly to CSOs to end apartheid and or to “fight against HIV and AIDS”, started to flow directly to the government for state initiated programmes or for technical support to specific or strategic government departments. With most donors emphasizing the need for CSOs to align their programmes with governments’ – the so called collaborative approaches. This has largely resulted in most civil society organisations either competing for funds, or abandoning their watchdog status, or losing their autonomy as they became an extension of government’s service delivery arm, radically changing the scope and nature of their operations or seeking new identities to ‘fit the funding criteria’, etc. The extensive competition for funding which is fuelled by shrinking resources and to some extent, donors’ over emphasis on collaborative approaches, has undermined the sector's ability to act cohesively, as it had done in the past. So NGOs and its various sectors, need to start finding ways of collaborating, sharing resources and expertise in order to effectively rise up and constructively meet the challenges of the OGP environment in SA.

  2. I am encouraged to see OGP members -- be it South Africa or any other country -- being held accountable and answerable for their failures to act on what are increasingly looking like hollow commitments. I would like to know, however, the extent to which those who attended both meetings are representative of citizens and of their needs (these are two distinct things). And, in the spirit of openness, is there a publicly available attendance register of these meetings? Are there minutes from the meetings on both days available online and without restricted access? CSO fervour is one thing, but those representing citizens also need to be held accountable. Especially when, as the comment above rightly points out, the NGO/CSO landscape is one characterised by competitiveness rather than by collaboration and solidarity. Not quite the same situation as a common-cause rally against an oppressive State.