Towards the end of 2010, a workshop took place in Langa (Cape Town) that brought together progressive social movements (SM) and NGOs. This workshop was attended by representatives from the donor community . The purpose of the workshop was to provide a space to advance an ongoing dialogue between these two different players in ‘civil society’, viz. the NGO sector and the movements.
There are many tensions, contradictions and challenges in this dialogue: sometimes it is a dialogue between ‘equals’ and sometimes it is one between ‘unequals’ - those with unequal power and resource bases. Thus it is important to define the roles of the different players and what kind of partnerships can be formed. One has to bear in mind that both NGOs and social movements are very diverse, not homogeneous and they have different agendas, which may or may not be transformative. Below is a summary of the main issues that emerged from the discussions:
1. VOICES FROM THE GROUND
The Social Movements present have been in existence for different lengths of time and have very different membership sizes (e.g.: from small to 20, 000 members strong) and differ in the extent of their geographic/spatial reach and fields of action.
Their campaigns and initiatives are many and vary from community or area and include:
• Fighting against the imposition of water and electricity metering devices, and reconnecting electricity supplies through peoples’ initiatives and power;
• Resisting house and land evictions and occupying land;
• Lobbing around changes to government policies;
• Promoting the boycott of local government elections;
• Running Community Based Organisations in informal settlements;
• Building consciousness on capitalism and the root causes of unemployment;
• Building a second layer of leadership amongst the youth;
• Organising farm workers, the landless, farmers, women and the youth in rural areas; and
• Initiating many other campaigns for the right to health; right to water; alternative agricultural models and fair trade; the right to work; etc.
This shows that there is a high level of organisation going on. But despite some overlaps and many common issues, as a whole these campaigns and initiatives tend to remain and feel isolated.
The Social Movements present, indicated that they face many problems and challenges. Although these may differ in different communities/areas (e.g. urban and rural areas), these problems affect all poor communities in South Africa. The lack of economic transformation since independence and unemployment were seen as the most serious. For many of the poor, state social welfare grants are the only income. Land and house evictions have continued in both urban and rural areas. Many remain landless. Evictions from farms occur without the provision of alternatives and farm workers are victimised. The agrarian question remains unresolved. In some rural areas there are moves to go back to apartheid and homeland structures as traditional chiefs are being imposed by government. Women’s exclusion poses additional threats to the livelihood of women. For many women there is no access to housing and other basic services (e.g.: electricity, water). There is widespread violence against women. Government decisions are ‘top-down’ and there is a culture of political patronising to those who are ‘well connected’; councilors are unaccountable, unresponsive and see Social Movements as a threat. They also act as ‘gatekeepers’ and in rural areas and one must consult them before expanding the work Social Movements to other areas. There is criminalisation of struggles and Social Movements. There is a lack of support from COSATU and the SACP, in the Tripartite Alliance, towards struggles undertaken by Social Movements.
Social Movements also face internal problems and challenges: they are struggling to create their own space at local level and to retain membership - consciousness is low, resources are few and ‘people go home to no bread on the table.
At times, social movements also lack accountability in their own structures. They need to ensure internal democracy, accountability, that leadership is serving the community and strengthen their relationships to the grassroots base.
Social Movements also face problems in relation with NGOs: Social Movements mobilise people in communities but NGOs use this for their own benefit. NGOs ‘swallow the Social Movements’ and co-opt leaders, and so doing divide people’s struggles. This has potential to lead to fighting and tensions between NGOs and the movements.
2. KEY QUESTIONS DISCUSSED
a) What are the key challenges in the relationship between Social Movements and NGOs - What is the meaning of independence? How can we promote a ‘partnership of equals’?
It is useful to think of Social Movements and NGOs in an historical context – Social Movements have been fighting oppression for hundreds of years, whilst NGOs are recent phenomena. Some of the existing Social Movements in South Africa emerged under different circumstances:
• Some emerged autonomously (without NGO support) out of the communities themselves in response to local conditions and struggles. They have kept and will keep on defending their autonomy from NGOs. They have been inspired by other progressive Social Movements elsewhere (e.g.: the MST in Brazil).
• Other Social Movements emerged with the support of NGOs. NGOs assisted the Social Movements with training (e.g.: in very specific skills), and/or by providing access to material resources and office space. The ‘push’ to establish independent Social Movements came either as a result of funder requirements and/or as a decision of the Social Movements themselves. Some are still resisting pressure from funders to ‘jump’ to full independence and want to do this in their own time.
But currently NGOs continue to be funding channels and this makes Social Movements dependent on NGOs to some extent. Even though some Social Movements have broken away from NGOs and others may break away one day, it is still possible for Social Movements and NGOs to work together and form partnerships based on negotiated agreements. Independence does not have to be narrowly interpreted as access to and control over money and material resources. Independence also includes the freedom of thought, decision making and to take political action. Thus it is more useful to think in terms of independence, dependence and interdependence. A focus on total independence carries the danger of fighting with each other rather than carry forward the struggle towards socialism.
To achieve this Social Movements must define their own role, recognise their power, set the agenda and define expectations when working with NGOs. When strategic alliances are developed there must be clearly defined roles on how to support and compliment each other around a common agenda. NGOs should support peoples’ struggles (e.g. through research; providing legal support; and FACILITATE the capacitation of Social Movements, i.e. not lead the way). But it must be recognised that NGOs have their own limitations because of budget limitations and their own programmes. Both Social Movements and NGOs must defend the Social Movements so that the movements do not come under attack by the media, government or other NGOs. On the other hand funders who want to support progressive Social Movements need some guidelines of where funds should go, so as to see greater impacts and changes.
b) What is the role of politics, intellectuals and activism in building movements for social change?
• Politics are at the heart of what Social Movements and NGOs do. It is crucial to understand what is happening in the world - what do we want to change, what are the issues, what are the threats and opportunities, what are our strengths and weaknesses? Activists in Social Movements are responsible for determining their own course of actions, increase their political understanding and be aware of hidden agendas.
• But progressive intellectuals should support Social Movements, not as a ‘leading class’ that dominate and change the agendas of the Social Movements, but as resource persons to increase the capacity for political education.
The way forward
It was proposed that Social Movements and NGOs continue this dialogue, and come up with concrete proposals on how to move forward. The next meeting should ensure a greater presence of rural movements. The planning of the next meeting should be community driven and include more people to help shape the meeting and discussions. Meanwhile people are responsible for ensuring that this debate continues in people’s own organisations and in different spaces.