The shrinking political space for civil society

Darlington Tshuma is doing his PhD in Peacebuilding at the Durban University of Technology, South Africa.  He has extensive experience in research and policy analysis, mediation support and peacebuilding. He holds a Masters in Sociology and Social Anthropology from the University of Zimbabwe and is a recipient of the prestigious Canon Collins Postgraduate Scholarship. Follow Tshuma on Twitter


The shrinking political space for civil society

May is an important month on the African calendar. It is a month to celebrate our past achievements and rededicate ourselves to the values and virtues we hold dear as Africans. Africa Day is an opportunity to remember the founding figures of African nationalism; people like Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Nkwame Nkrumah among others who were united by a resolve to free Africa from colonial bondage and eliminate all forms of injustice associated with the process of colonization.

Africa Day is also a moment to pay homage to other distinguished pan-Africanists like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Joshua Nkomo, Thomas Sankara, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Sam Nujoma among many others who dedicated their lives to the struggle for democracy and to further the objective of open and just societies in Africa.

With philosophical roots in the work of Karl Popper; the notion of open and just societies extolls the positive aspects of democracy that includes respect for human rights, social justice and equality of human beings. These elements were in themselves central to the struggle for African independence. George Soros, a student of Popper sees civil society as intricately tied to the notion of open and just societies and therefore crucial in upholding the values of democracy, human rights and social justice. But what is the state of civil society in southern Africa today? And in its current state, can civil society be a vehicle for positive social change?

These questions come on the backdrop of a shrinking civic space across southern Africa and in countries like Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia and Mozambique in particular. The CIVICUS monitor of 2018 shows that more than half of the countries whose civic space is considered closed are in Africa. In Zimbabwe for example, it is not uncommon to hear that civil society leaders have been arbitrarily arrested, sometimes in complete violation of the constitution. This trend is not unique to Zimbabwe alone, however. In 2016 a prominent South African anti-mining activist and member of the Amadiba Crisis Committee was brutally killed after staging numerous protests against the mining activities of an Australian firm in the Eastern Cape. In the DRC and Zambia a number of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have been forced to shut down.

We also know that a shrinking civic space uncharacteristically leads to reversal of democratic gains and a slide towards authoritarianism, human rights violations, poverty and injustice. In recognition of the precarious state of civil society in Africa; I pose the question: what is absolutely necessary at this moment in time to further the objective of open and just societies in southern Africa? I make a few recommendations:

  1. There is need for a strong and vibrant civil society in southern Africa to hold not only governments accountable but increasingly the private sector which is seen as instrumental in aiding and facilitating sophisticated money laundering and illicit financial flow schemes. For years now majority of CSOs have focused exclusively on governments yet the private sector remains one of the leading institutions in sustaining economic injustice and resisting attempts at socioeconomic transformation and redistribution of wealth that benefits the poor. This trend is visible across Africa.
  2. There is need for better coordination and engagement between host governments and civil society actors. The point here is that engagement must be relevant and purposeful for all stakeholders. It must also be inclusive and based on mutual trust. CSOs are known to be more organically linked to communities than governments. This presents CSOs with an opportunity to present diverse perspectives that benefit discussions on state-civil society relations for the betterment of society.
  3. In recognition of the important role played by CSOs in furthering open and just societies, governments and the private sector across southern Africa must commit to fund civil society through transparent processes. This in turn reduces susceptibility to co-optation by powerful players and the vulnerability that comes with overreliance on external funding.

In summation, a strong and vibrant civil society is a sign of a healthy and mature democracy. By working to strengthen institutions, civil society ensures that public officials and the institutions they represent are held accountable and work to deliver public goods and services. Equally important is the role a strong and vibrant civil society plays in keeping the private sector in check.


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