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Post-apartheid social movements see limited gains

Date Released: Thu, 23 May 2013 11:59 +0200

Post-Apartheid social movements in South Africa have acted as agents of democracy, but have a lot of work to do if they are to achieve the socio-economic transformation that their members truly need, according to senior research associate at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Johannesburg/Rhodes University Dr Fiona Anciano.

“[The social movements] have had an impact on the South African political landscape, but have not managed to achieve economic transformation yet, which is what their members really want,” said Dr Anciano.

She presented research conducted both as part of her PhD completed in 2007 and her work at the Centre for Policy Studies and Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Focusing on the urban-based Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) and the farmworkers’ movement Sikhula Sonke, she compared the achievements of social movements to hopes held by academics and activists alike at the time when such forms of civil society were emerging in South Africa’s new democracy.

According to Dr Anciano, it was hoped that post-apartheid social movements would fulfil four primary functions: challenging the hegemony of the African National Congress (ANC) and state, promoting progressive political and economic policies, generating mass mobilisation, and deepening participatory democracy. The question she asked, though, was: “Have these social movements fulfilled the hopes upon them?”

It was hoped that post-apartheid social movements would be able to hold government to account and open the political landscape to marginalised communities. In examining whether this has happened, Dr Anciano noted gains made by the two movements she studied in terms of their own aims and agendas.

She mentioned achievements particularly in forcing local authorities to hear their complaints.

“The SECC did generate state responsiveness to a limited extent,” she said. “Mostly the government hasn’t changed what they are doing, but they have listened to and acknowledged what the SECC are saying.”

She said that it is important to put the achievements of these social movements in context. “We can’t expect any one movement to achieve fundamental change,” she said.

Activists themselves have noted that the failure to work together properly has possibly limited the impact which these civil society organisations have been able to make. “There hasn’t been a national linking of social movements and community uprisings,” Dr Anciano noted.

She thinks that the individual movements have played an important role in social transformation, especially where they have offered channels of representation to the poor and created opportunities for participation beyond elections.

She mentioned that Sikhula Sonke particularly has been very successful in teaching farmworkers about their basic human rights.

She also highlighted that the movements have engage in both moderate discussions with authorities and more radical marches, protests, and illegal activities with varying degrees of success and support.

She views it as positive that they have also used institutions such as the courts and Human Rights Commission to lodge complaints. “Even if they are not having success, it is important that they are using these institutions because if they are not used they cannot be strengthened,” she said.

Dr Anciano concluded by saying that, despite these positive features, post-apartheid social movements haven’t fulfilled the hopes initially placed on them, particularly in achieving the economic transformation necessary to address the livelihood challenges which are their members’ primary concern.

Photo by Yvonne Phyllis

By Kyla Hazell