Often civil society activism seems like a mixture of dissatisfaction and hope without much impact on the real world. Activists are usually conscious of the formidable odds against “change” because of the all encompassing and rarely adequately defined structures of power.
Underlying this idealism is the idea that planting the seeds for alternatives today will flower into something new at some undefined point in the future. In other words, in spite of all the work, the likely outcome is that ‘things remain the same’.
In some senses standing outside the prevailing orthodoxy and extolling a vision is a lot easier when there is powerful resistance to it. But, what happens when circumstances suggest that there is an opening where intent can be translated into action?
The release of the Green Paper for National Strategic Planning and the Policy Document for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation indicates that an unprecedented space has opened up for shaping a more equal future. South Africans will be developing ‘Vision 2025’, as the long-term plan is called.
Historically, since the mid 1990s, calls by progressive civil society for ‘long-term’ or ‘comprehensive planning’ seemed destined to be the dream of activists. Over the years, motivations for a long-term plan were a response both to inadequate planning instruments as well as concerns about whether government’s policies would result in a more equal society.
Technically, the government’s programme of action lacked an internal coherence and iterative process to support policy improvements, despite improvements to the budget process. More importantly, government was chasing delivery targets without tackling the underlying causes of inequality. Consequently systemic and long-term change required reviewing and refocusing the developmental plans of government departments.
The opportunity for transformation is once again upon us, however, civil society will need to refine its focus and strategies if it is to ensure that it plays a meaningful role as a strong contender in developing Vision 2025.
Importantly, in framing this debate, it is important to be reminded that Vision 2025 will be a contested process.
As Trevor Manuel, Minister of the National Planning Commission, indicates in the green paper on planning, developing this vision will not be an exercise in searching for the lowest common denominator, but rather, as a society, we will need to make not only difficult choices, but also inspired ones.
Many will argue that a successful process will require all social partners to look beyond their narrow needs. However, more important, is the need to build a stake for each social partner through the plan.
This is a lesson we learned through the Growth and Development Summit, which arguably saw social partners taking bold decisions, but implementation rested with government -- and without much role and responsibility for social partners beyond the formal signing process, the process floundered.
The start of the current process is getting a dialogue going between social partners.
Up to this point, most of the campaigning activities in civil society have been directed at government and the ruling African National
Congress. Yet, civil society will need to engage wider society on the merits of its proposals -- including engaging those dismissive of anything even remotely “radical”. This requires understanding the bevy of recently released proposals and developing new strategies for engagement with sectors outside of government and party politics.
Civil society has some experience of engagement with established organised business, but ironically there has been little engagement with emerging business. In some instances, this more open and transparent process will reflect a growing sense of belonging for civil society, but also a democratic commitment to engaging those outside the powerful institutions of government and business.
Importantly, progressive civil society has a running start, having invested resources – albeit somewhat limited - in the development of “evidence-based” policy proposals. Campaigns, such as the People’s Budget Campaign, Treatment Action Campaign and the Basic Income Grant are amongst the better-known campaigns that have developed proposals. Yet, smaller but equally important campaigns around early childhood development, education, broadband access and renewable energy, sit together with emerging ideas on matched savings and cooperatives.
Despite having consciously invested in something akin to a network for creative solutions, these organisations will need to continuously replenish both their technical expertise and political leadership for a future engagement on Vision 2025. This is important not only because there is a continuous flow of people from civil society into government, but more importantly because engagements on policy proposals will be much more robust.
Operationally, an effective engagement by civil society will require the leadership to reprioritise the immediate. Very often civil society’s work is focused on the immediate and the tangible. These include important activities to support access to government services, intervening in this or that policy programme or even just doing the day-to-day activities to keep organisations running during a time when funding is extremely difficult to raise.
More to the point, civil society organisations have skills and capacity challenges, which are more acute than in other sectors of our society. In these circumstances, it will take vision and a commitment to the country to release some of the senior people in churches, trade unions and non-governmental organisations to dedicate a portion of their time to working on Vision 2025.
This should not be limited to “think tanks” in civil society, but rather to the full spectrum of civil society organisations. The central reason is that many civil society organisations have a mission towards creating a “different world”, and the process leading to Vision 2025 will be such an experience.
Moreover, innovation on development strategies that have emerged from civil society organisations have and will continue to require a leadership willing to open space for creativity and engagement.
At the same time, progressive civil society will need to refine its institutional mechanisms for impacting upon policy.
Thus far, providing coalitions with space to develop their strategies has been a major boon, especially as it made the best use of limited finances and human resources. However, in impacting on the long-term vision for South Africa, a greater level of coordination is needed between existing campaigns, potentially under the theme of “greater equality”.
The need for improved coordination will however sit cheek-by-jowl with important organisational and political challenges unique to civil society.
The coordination of campaigns in civil society should not replicate the decision making of all political parties in South Africa, which could be described as more centralised than democratic. Instead, a softer approach, weaving proposals together into a coherent strategy needs to be followed.
This would thus provide a space capable of nurturing emerging ideas to materialise stronger with critical engagement and eventually endorsements from powerful actors such as trade unions and churches. Moreover, it would provide the space for organisations to determine their role in relation to wider coalitions, including opting out. This requires a shift, to use management speak, from “command and control” to “coordinate and cultivate.”
The changes required in civil society are thus major ones if it is to play a meaningful role. There is the rarest of opportunities to translate intent for inclusion into action through Vision 2025. This opportunity can only be grasped by bold and decisive realignment of resources together with a refinement of political strategy by various actors in civil society. Today, more than ever having evidence based proposals are only the starting point, for a crucial and foundational dialogue about our future. Vision 2025 can only succeed if the trade unions, churches, and NGOs that campaigned for it are able to provide leadership and direction.