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This article is taken from the August 2004 Phatlalatsa newsletter


A decade of democracy: South Africa in review — Part two Social movements

A decade of democracy: South Africa in review — Part two Social movements imageDavid Everatt reviews the 10 years since the democratic general election of 1994. Part 3 of this 4 part series.

The situation has been blurred rather than clarified by over-use of the term ‘social movement' among academics, activists and journalists. Social movements are commonly organisations of the poor that move beyond a single-issue focus to take on a broader political agenda. In the absence of robust parliamentary opposition, however, the term ‘social movement' is often invoked by those seeking some form of resistance to the state and/or ruling party. Social movements are thus often expected to provide the opposition that the parliamentary system has failed to offer.

The Mail & Guardian newspaper ran a two-page feature entitled: “Social movements:” ‘ultra-left' or global citizens?” 1 The article sought to capture both the oppositional spirit of social movements and also to probe the reasons for government's wariness of them. However, the article offered no distinction between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with a popular base, or small research units. Anyone with a laptop and a letterhead, it seemed, could become a social movement. The article ignored two key issues, however. Firstly, the most successful social movement is commonly taken to be the Treatment Action Campaign, which has developed a large membership as well as enjoying a high profile and employing highly successful strategies that combine mobilisation with litigation. But alongside TAC is Mapogo a Mathamaga, popular among black and white South Africans for the ‘instant justice' it metes out to those it finds transgressing the law. So too is PAGAD, the Western Cape movement that began as a community response to gangs and drugs but which rapidly got caught up in precisely the problems it was meant to eradicate.

Social movements must be seen without the mythology that overlays their work, generated by academics and journalists looking for something new and exciting to write about. They are not membership-based and thus not necessarily comparable to NGOs; social movements tend to mobilise by issue, responding to mood changes, and can rise and fall at speed. It is perhaps surprising that we do not have more in place: issues such as electricity, land and so on are all points where social pressure is mounting and such movements may emerge. But it should also be recalled that in the decade since democracy, there has been an extremely high cross-over from civil society into government, and (recently) back again. While the TAC and government have had a very public stand-off, relations in other sectors have a very different flavour.

More worryingly, however, is the fact that a number of relatively well-known social movements, including the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and Anti-Privatisation Forum seem to regard themselves as outside of what they regard as the illegitimate South African state. Given the fact that South Africans managed to walk away from the precipice of collapse in 1994, it is important to engage with and challenge this tendency to disregard the Constitution.

The non-profit sector more broadly – comprising NGOs and community based organisations (CBOs) – appears to be in relatively good health, although this is more true of the latter than the former. The Non Profit Organisations Act, which came into force in 1998, sets out the following definitional criteria:

  • Organised;
  • Private;
  • Self-governing;
  • Non-profit distributing; and
  • Voluntary.

The SA non-profit sector: key findings

The recent non-profit survey used these criteria to identify non-profit organisations throughout South Africa. Some flexibility was required in order to include the range of CBOs including co-operatives, stokvels (saving clubs), burial societies and others. Within the methodological limitations of the study, Swilling and Russell report that there are 98 920 non-profit organisations (NPOs) in South Africa, together employing 178 370 full-time equivalents or 54% of the total number of people employed in the sector. 2 According to the study, 53% of all South African non-profit organisations can be classified as less formalised voluntary associations (i.e. not formally structured as Section 21 companies, trusts and so on). The majority of these organisations can be found in poorer communities. They are also therefore likely partners for donors that prefer to work at grass-roots level, with implications in terms of contracting, capacity and so on.

Other key findings of the study include:

  • South Africa has a larger non-profit sector than all but a handful of developed countries. There are
    98 920 NPOs across all sectors. The largest sectors are culture and recreation (20 587), social services (22 755) and development and housing (20 382).
  • Civic advocacy and environment may appear small but are comparatively large. Issue-based and value-driven organisations in the environment and civic/advocacy sectors are significant, including civil rights organisations (5% of the non-profit workforce) and political parties (14%).
  • The majority (53%) of NPOs are less formalised CBOs concentrated in poorer communities.
  • NPOs are stable rather than transient organisations with an average existence of 19 years.
  • Women and black people play a leading role in the NPO sector. In contrast to the gender profile of the public sector and the gender and race profile of the private sector, 59% of the managerial level of all NPOs surveyed were women and 73% of managers were black.
  • The non-profit sector is a major economic force and is larger than some formal economic sectors. The total operating expenditure of all South Africa's non-profits was R9,3 billion in 1998/1999, or 1.2% of the 1998 GDP. It is a major employer – there are 645 316 full-time equivalent staff employed by the non-profit sector, which is equivalent to 9% of the formal non-agricultural workforce or 7.6% of the total non-agricultural workforce.
  • The non-profit sector in South Africa mobilises a substantial number of volunteers. Nearly 1.5 million volunteers actively contributed their time and energy to South African NPOs in 1998, well above the international average.

This points to a deeper issue, namely the inequalities that divide larger, well-resourced NGOs from smaller and poorer CBOs, despite the fact that the latter are most commonly located in and directly serve the poorest communities in South Africa. Supporting such CBOs can directly benefit target communities – particularly when targeting vulnerable groups such as HIV and AIDS orphans – but CBOs may also lack management and administrative capacity and require considerable support in this regard. Finally, a key finding of the non-profit study was that the sector is a R9.3 bn industry that contributed 1.2% to the Gross Domestic Product in 1998. 3 The sector is larger (measured by size of workforce) than many formal sectors.

South Africa continues to enjoy a rich and vibrant non-profit sector. The non-profit survey results contradict some analysts who had previously made gloomy predictions about the sector's imminent demise. It is a major economic force, not a rag-tag collection of unreconstructed activists, and needs to considerably improve its levels of internal coherence so as to flex its muscle as required.

Constitutional democracy and socio-economic rights

The use of rights-based approaches is increasingly popular in South Africa. The Constitution provides a framework which comprises a set of rights to which people are entitled and which the state must deliver – not necessarily immediately, but certainly over time. The rights-based approach uses the Constitution so that the right sets the standard for government delivery, and rights become the fulcrum for struggle. People can claim as a right social assistance, for example, but also have to negotiate with the state as to the time and method of delivery. The rights-based approach requires that people engage with the state over how to get their social entitlements, but not whether or not they will get those entitlements.

Socio-economic rights provide a critical point where conservative elements in the ANC clash directly with social movements as well as NGO and CBO activists using rights-based strategies. Government has suffered a series of setbacks in the Constitutional Court, notably regarding provision of housing for the poor (in the Grootboom case) and provision of anti-retroviral therapy (in a case brought by the TAC).

There are contending pressures within the ruling party, where some are increasingly frustrated by the Constitutional Court. It will be important to closely monitor who replaces the current judges in the Constitutional Court and how they are selected. The current leaders of the ANC drafted the Constitution and have a deep emotional bond with it – but this may not be true of their successors. Already some in the upper end of the ANC hierarchy have hit out at the Constitutional Court and its judges. Dumisani Makhaye, an outspoken ANC MP from KwaZulu-Natal who seems to ride point for Mbeki, recently accused “elements from the SA judiciary” of thinking “they are the only ones that are unaccountable to anybody”; and went on to accuse them of supporting white judges in Zimbabwe “who think they are above the law”. 4 Makhaye's apparently thoughtless criticism reflects the view that the elected government's agenda is being subverted by an un-elected judiciary. While this may be a partly understandable reaction, it fails to reflect the fact that a new South African jurisprudence is emerging, as the judiciary tests and locates the boundaries of its own influence, in precisely the same manner as the legislature is finding its limits.

Socio-economic rights are an area where civil society enters the picture and can play an important role in identifying key issues, producing test cases, and mobilising around them. The table on the following page summarises delivery and shortfalls in key socio-economic areas.


1 Mail & Guardian January 31 to February 6 2003.

2 Swilling M and Russell B (2002) The size and scope of the Non-profit sector in South Africa. (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)

3 Swilling and Russell (2002) The size and scope op cit., p. 20.

4 “SA's judges taken to task on Zimbabwe” in Business Day March 6 2003.

Outstanding Challenges
Socio-economic right
Outstanding challenges
Education, including basic education (and adult basic education) and further education

• 29% of adult population is functionally illiterate

• 4 407 schools are in poor or very poor condition

• 49% of schools have a shortage of classrooms

• Significant variations in teacher:pupil ratio

• Only 80% of population of school-going age is in school

• Only 40% of education budget went to poorest half of the population

• Failure to spend R110 m for materials and schools

Food, including basic nutrition

• Insufficient coverage of school feeding projects

• Failure to spend R240 m of primary school nutrition scheme at provincial level between 1997-1999

• 14 million people have no food security

• 2.5 million people are malnourished

• Only Gauteng and Northern Cape had food security projects

Health care (including reproductive health)


• Estimated shortfall of almost 800 clinics

• Gross disparities between provinces & between private/public facilities

• Only 24% of community service doctors are placed in rural facilities

• Health clinics, especially in rural areas, are understaffed and lack basic medicines

• In 2000, DoH failed to spend 40% of its HIV and AIDS budget and cut 43% of its funding for AIDS service organisations

Housing*, including protection against eviction and demolition


• Housing backlog in 2000 estimated at 3-4 million units

• Between 1995-1999 there has been an absolute increase of 653 000 informal dwellings, of which 97% are in urban areas

• Significant decrease in budget allocation: 1.83% of total budget in 1998/9

• 50% of government subsidies went to non-physical inputs & consultancy fees

• 70% of houses built between 1994 and1999 are considered sub-standard, i.e. too small or poorly constructed

Social security, including social assistance



• Administrative difficulties with grant system

• Large gap in social security coverage: excludes children over 7 years old and adults up to pensionable age living in poverty

• Larger number of beneficiaries than planned for

• If current system were implemented effectively, 30-40% of poor households would not get social assistance

• In 1998/9 social assistance (poverty alleviation programmes) amounted to only 4% of DoSS budget

• Lack of financial planning and expenditure: only 0.7% of anti-poverty budget of R204 m was used in 1998/9 – has led to a decrease of 75% in budget allocation to poverty alleviation


• Over 80% of rural households do not have access to piped water

• Inability to pay for water costs limits access – e.g. between 1995-1999, 72 000 households in rural areas have lost access to flush toilets or chemical toilets

Source: Pieterse E and van Donk M (2002). ‘Incomplete Ruptures. The political economy of realising socio-economic rights in South Africa ', paper prepared for CLC Colloquium: Realising socio-economic rights in SA: Progress and Challenges.

Part Four which will be published in the next newsletter will be the final installment of the extract from the book.


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