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The role of civil society in SA’s pivotal elections in 2024

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Last week WhyAfrica attended another instalment of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Critical Dialogue Series focussed on South Africa’s 2024 elections and what role civil society should play. Image credit: Nelson Mandela Foundation

The role of civil society in SA’s pivotal elections in 2024

Last week WhyAfrica was invited to attend another instalment of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Critical Dialogue Series focussed on South Africa’s 2024 elections and what role civil society should play.      

The dialogue was hosted at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa and was well attended by members of the civil society sector, activists, movement builders, people from political parties, funding institutions and the private sector. The convening was made possible by the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

According to analysts, political scientists, and other experts, the 2024 South African elections could be a turning point in the country’s current trajectory.

Some have even contrasted 2024 to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. However, there is concern that civil society is not organised, coordinated and ambitious enough to make the most of the opportunities that the general elections present.

This presumption is based on the idea that the civil society sector, which often operates outside of the political party space, can play a productive role beyond convening talk shops with no action.

Civil society’s important role (The role of civil society in SA’s pivotal elections in 2024)

In his keynote address, Terry Tselane, Vice Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of South Africa, noted five areas in which civil society must play a role to ensure a healthy and participatory democracy as well as a successful election process:

  1. Democratic Culture: Advocacy around civic education and ending problematic practices such as disruption and political killings.
  2. Advocacy around electoral policy: Such as the work done to allow independents to run without belonging to a political party.
  3. Capacitating Parties: Especially around coalition governance towards stabilising the political space.
  4. Election Monitoring and Observing: Ensuring that the elections take place and that they are free and fair.
  5. Combatting Disinformation and Misinformation: Particularly around digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence that have the potential to capture an election by manufacturing ignorance and conspiratorial thinking such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Tselane went on to describe how civil society must protect its space because political parties who feel threatened by their work want to minimise their role and have a history of harassing and assaulting activists and attacking their credibility.

Lukhona Mnguni, the panel discussion’s facilitator and public intellectual, echoed this sentiment in opening the panel. The panel was composed by Noncedo Madubedube, Secretary-General of Equal Education; Lindiwe Mazibuko, Former Leader of the Opposition of the Republic of South Africa; Qaanitah Hunter who is the Assistant Editor of Politics and Opinion at News24, as well as Jaap de Visser, law professor at the University of the Western Cape.

Checking out of politics (The role of civil society in SA’s pivotal elections in 2024)

Mazibuko explored the ways civil society has historically applied a hands-off approach to politics, either believing that they are above politics or that politics are too messy to touch. She described the ways civil society has checked out of politics and how their funders have sometimes even threatened to pull funding if they enter political terrain.

“This has meant some of our best leaders, our brightest minds and our most motivated activists are not interested in investing their skills and expertise in the state.

“This has left the state starved for effective leadership. It is of paramount importance that civil society vigorously and authoritatively play their role within politics, especially in capacitating the state, brokering relationships with organs of the state, and stabilising the political space with their skills and expertise,” she said.

What came out of the dialogue was framed well by Hunter who pointed to the reality that the South African political culture has been saviour-based, and that “we outsource the responsibility to resolve and fix issues to the same political figures that have caused these issues. Politics are too expensive to be left to politicians, as the stakes are far too high and the failures of the increasingly incompetent state rise and rise.”

Inasmuch as the 2024 elections hold enormous potential to unseat the ruling incumbency which has enjoyed a majority in parliament since 1994, however, Madubedube put it well in reflecting on this moment by reminding the audience of other moments civil society in South Africa failed to take advantage of.

“The Anti-Zuma years and that moment has not yielded any structural, systemic, or even cultural changes, nor has the way that we organised ourselves during the Covid-19 been sustained to pursue long-term socioeconomic changes in South Africa,” said Madubedube.

All things considered, the 2024 general elections possess the potential to realign the country with the Constitution and make it a lived reality for everyone in South Africa. With the multiple and compounding crises we have struggled through, South Africa deserves leadership that will uproot systemic inequality, end cycles of gender-based violence, solve the energy crisis and reinstall the dignity of the state.

If you missed this critical dialogue, watch a recording at https://events.nelsonmandela.org/events/2023/10/12/2024-elections-the-role-of-civil-society

The role of civil society in SA’s pivotal elections in 2024

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The role of civil society in SA’s pivotal elections in 2024


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