We are the state: In everyday life in South Africa democracy must repeatedly be fought for anew

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South Africa's democracy was fought hard, the catalog of fundamental rights is now one of the most advanced in the world, but these must be claimed. Our office in Cape Town encourages feminist training, education and self-organization of discriminated groups.

South Africa’s democracy was hard won. For more than one hundred years people of all skin colors, especially the black inhabitants, fought against the apartheid system. Sympathetic people around the world followed and supported them. In 1994 all South Africans voted for the first time, electing Nelson Mandela as president. A new constitution was passed in 1996. With its extensive bill of rights, it is one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. To ensure that citizens can really exercise their rights, there is not only an independent constitutional court, but also state institutions that strengthen democracy and monitor the government. According to chapter nine of the constitution, these include a human rights commission, a public protector, and a commission for gender equality.

These issues have been the strategic focal point of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s regional office in Cape Town. Together with its partners, the foundation has fought to consolidate democratic institutions and to enable citizens to effect changes. This begins with the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), an NGO that observes the South African parliament. Here citizens can learn who has actually been assigned to their electoral district, as they vote only for party lists. Representatives elected in this way are more interested in courting the favor of party leadership than in representing their constituency. That is one reason why representatives of the all-powerful African National Congress (ANC) only very rarely express criticism or demand accountability.

To ensure that members of parliament always debate and act in a gender-sensitive way, the Heinrich Böll Foundation supports feminist training for young women in political parties, also with the goal of promoting nonpartisan cooperation. An example of practical gender awareness is the feminist analysis of the budget; between 2009 and 2014 representatives received training on this issue. Since 2011, South African president Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation addresses have been dissected annually by a team of experienced feminists on behalf of the Women’s Legal Center (WLC).

When parliamentarians of the governing majority move in the wrong direction, the Heinrich Böll Foundation—together with its partners and many others—offers resistance. The Traditional Courts Bill, initially formulated in 2008, proposed giving extensive rights to traditional chiefs in rural areas. According to the bill, seventeen million South Africans in the former Bantustans would be subject to the will and decisions of traditional chiefs; under these authorities, who are conservative in terms gender politics, women stood to lose a number of rights included in South Africa’s constitution. Opponents of the proposed law (including Heinrich Böll Foundation partners) were so competent and convincing that even ANC-ruled provinces refused to support the bill. The government, however, has continued to try to push it through. A slightly revised version of the bill is currently being considered in parliament. The government wants to win over the chiefs, whose support it needs in the rural areas because it continues to lose support in the cities. This is why the chiefs were given a hefty salary increase.

A broad alliance has also been able to impede another bill proposed by the government. The Protection of State Information Bill, also called the Secrecy Bill, would allow state officials to declare parts of their work a state secret; anyone making these public would be subject to harsh punishment. A broad coalition of citizen movements led by the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) was able to force the government to make numerous concessions, thereby defusing the bill.

Enabling civil society to exert influence on parliament is also part of the Cape Town office’s program. Heinrich Böll Foundation partner Equal Education (a young, but already renowned movement for better schooling) has been rather successful with parliamentary committees. Seven of eight recommendations it made were accepted at consultations and included in the basic education law. Another reason Equal Education is so highly regarded is that the organization not only takes on politicians but also organizes very practical improvements, such as the campaign for functional school libraries. With support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the NGO Corruption Watch has examined conditions at schools since January 2013. By April 2014, 950 reported transgressions had been investigated, with eighty percent classified as corruption.

In South Africa the battle against gender-based violence addresses very concrete and painful abuses. In global comparative statistics, the country ranks quite high on this issue. Together with the National Shelter Movement and with support from the EU, the Heinrich Böll Foundation is seeking to establish well-equipped women’s shelters for victims who have experienced or been threatened with violence.
Although the South African constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, there have been repeated hate crimes in the country against lesbians, with the perpetrators self-righteously designating their crimes as “corrective rape.” The Heinrich Böll Foundation has fought against the exclusion and persecution of sexual minorities for many years and on many levels and has been a dependable partner for many LGBTI groups in South Africa and in other countries as well. Over the past years the foundation has joined forces with civil society groups seeking to establish a dialogue with religious and traditional leaders. Inclusive and Affirmative Ministries (IAM) is active among churches and The Inner Circle (TIC) works in Muslim communities. In 2015 the foundation’s Cape Town office organized the first event with gay and lesbian sangomas, or traditional healers. Since many South Africans go to sangomas for advice in dealing with everyday issues, family problems, and spiritual needs, the latter are able to influence social perceptions.

“The rights of nonheterosexual people may appear to many to be a marginal issue,” says Layla Al-Zubaidi, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Cape Town, “especially in a country whose constitution explicitly regards sexual diversity as a basic right and is considered exemplary for this reason. That makes all the more serious the fact that lesbians have to fear for their lives. Politicians, the police, and the courts do little about the rapes and murders of women that are committed daily—lesbian or not.”

Because the apartheid state denied basic services to the nonwhite population, “service delivery” has for many people become the practical measuring stick for a functioning democracy. During local elections in May 2011, there was a veritable “toilet war” between the ruling ANC and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which also involved the Human Rights Commission and South African courts.

The DA, which rules in Cape Province, claims that it governs better and “delivers” more than the ANC, which is dominant in the rest of the country. But Cape Town stinks just as much, because the roadside toilets in the informal settlements are not emptied and cleaned on a regular basis. This was pointed out by the Social Justice Coalition, a Heinrich Böll Foundation partner organization, which inspected the toilets in the Khayelitsha township in April 2013 and was able to prove to the city that the company hired to clean the toilets had not performed the work properly. The performance of the sanitary services is now monitored with the help of social media and wireless technology under the slogan “imali yethu” (“it’s our money” in Xhosa). A second social audit of toilet cleaning took place in July 2014. In another in October 2013, citizen evaluators looked at waste collection and also found discrepancies between the services commissioned and what was actually done.

Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), another partner organization of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, presented a shadow report on the South African police in December 2013. Following a long campaign with several partners, a commission finally investigated the police in Khayelitsha. Because the township residents feel the police are ineffective, there have been repeated cases of vigilante justice.

From parliament to roadside toilets, professional democracy assistance operates on different levels. The citizens of the country themselves, however, have to claim the democracy, but only people who are connected to others can mobilize. The high cost of telecommunications can be an impediment here. Mobile telephones in South Africa are virtually controlled by two telephone companies and are therefore quite expensive. In response, R2K has started a campaign for lower telecommunications charges called Vula ma Connexion.

Being well connected does not automatically mean you have access to decision makers. That, too, has to be organized. People’s Power - People’s Parliament, a conference held in August 2012, brought together nine of the most important and most experienced civil society organizations with the goal of establishing a constructive dialogue with South Africa’s parliaments at the regional and the national level.
The expertise and engagement of NGOs are indispensable if a democracy is to function for the benefit of its citizens. But these professionals of civil society do not, for the most part, represent the grass roots of society. As those largely excluded from development in South Africa begin to organize - for instance, into movements of the unemployed, the landless, and the homeless - the Heinrich Böll Foundation has invited different organizations to form a joint platform for social justice. More than fifty organizations are involved, including NGOs, social movements, and previously “invisible” local initiatives such as Gays and Lesbians of Rustenburg (a mining city in the North West Province). Together they need to be strong so that they can step on the government’s toes: Awethu - for the people!

Such action is urgently needed, for South Africa’s young democracy has already started to look pretty old in many respects. Voter participation has declined and the right to vote needs reforming. Citizens have noted with bitterness that the wealthy are able to lead a good life at the cost of everyone else, that there are problems with services, and that the police shoot at protesting citizens. At the same time, however, the media analyzes all of this with great passion and sharp commentary. These voices are barely perceptible abroad. International interest in South Africa, once so great, has dwindled. For this reason, the Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Cape Town and the headquarters in Berlin have worked to ensure that these voices are heard in Germany. In 2012 the hundredth anniversary of the ANC was celebrated for the entire year with a web dossier, in which South African authors commented on the development of the former liberation movement. At events in Berlin, young intellectuals of the Midrand Group soberly dissected the ANC and explained to the audience—long-time sympathizers of the former liberation movement—that the ANC has split into deeply divided factions and that its sizeable majority in parliament has made it quite arrogant. They sharply castigated the corruption raging domestically and abroad and criticized the government for not doing more for poor South Africans despite its abundant tax revenues. A documentary film by Rehad Desai about the police massacre of miners in Marikana (Miners Shot Down), shown at the Heinrich Böll Foundation headquarters in early June 2014, also shocked viewers in Berlin. Older members of the audience were reminded of images from the apartheid era.

This article is part of our dossier "For Democracy - From the commitment of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the world" and was created as part of the publication of the same name.