Southern Africa - Civil society and the public sphere

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Participants of a "Campaigns Workshop" conducted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation for NGOs in the region (May 2003).

September 23, 2008
In every democratic society, a strong and independent media and pluralistic reporting have both an observational and corrective function. Today, the constitutions of all states in Southern Africa (with the exception of Swaziland) guarantee the right to freedom of expression. However, in most countries of the region, regulations still exist that serve to severely restrict freedom of the press and expression. The example of Zimbabwe shows in a particularly drastic manner the difference between constitutional rights and reality.

Until the 1990s, most of the media in the region were under state control. In the past decade, structural changes have taken place in the print media; and in radio and television as well in some countries. Improving the professional qualifications of journalists has been among the highest priorities, so that the meanwhile partially independent media may make an effective contribution toward democratisation in the region.

Until now, the "Southern Africa Media Program" of the Heinrich Böll Foundation has focused on basic and advanced training for journalists of independent media in the region. This has been undertaken both politically and professionally. Substantive portions of the media program include media policy as well as civic education for journalists in the areas of gender democracy, environmental protection, media and racism, as well as the fight against poverty and HIV/AIDS. Training courses for media workers as well as regional conferences and workshops offer concrete educational and networking activities.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s media program is currently in a process of restructuring. In a successor program titled "Civil Society and the Public Sphere in Southern Africa," the Foundation is striving for an enhanced political and substantive approach.

The point of departure for this new approach is that civil-society organisations play a decisive role in the region’s democratisation process. Civil society can and must address relevant issues and problems that – either consciously or unconsciously – are not officially addressed, thus bringing them to the attention of a broad public. In substantive areas where the democratisation process is stagnant or has even taken steps backward, civil-society institutions and organisations are particularly called upon to provide new impulses.

In southern African society, increasingly media-dominated, access to media, media competence and the ability to communicate in a targeted and effective manner is becoming ever more important. In other words, civil society must be capable of participating in and influencing public debate. But many non-governmental organisations lack communication concepts and skills. As such, they are often unable to effectively carry out their democratic function in society and are seldom able to actively participate in designing societal development and social change.

Both now and in the future, the young democracies of southern Africa urgently need a civil society which presents alternatives to "official" positions, thus functioning as a watchdog and engine of democratisation. With targeted help and support, civil-society actors will be put in a position of being able to involve themselves in democratisation processes in the region in a more active, efficient and effective manner.

Due to the serious infringements of freedom of the press in Zimbabwe, the Foundation plans to implement appropriate measures in that country to insist on respect for the right to freedom of the press.