Is South Africa any different? Are we special? Are we exceptional? These were the questions raised by gender activist and writer, Sisonke Msimang on Thursday at The Daily Maverick’s The Gathering, held at the Lyric Theatre, in Gold Reef City.
According to Msimang, “The danger of exceptionalism is that when a nation becomes exceptional, it becomes star-struck by its own leaders and captured by its exceptionalness… the nation may be fooled into waiting for the next exceptional event to save us.” Giving Msimang restlessness is the fact that we South Africans put ourselves on a pedestal; our “miracle” of ‘94 happened, and we have become so besotted with the idea of ‘wonder’ that we’ve become almost powerless to deal with the realities we are currently facing: the messy, gritty reality of everyday.
Between the many scandals we are faced with daily, South Africans are realising that we are as ‘normal’ as the next. In comes civil organisations – society organising itself to deal with the realities currently facing South Africa. Civil society organisations often go unnoticed in society as they fight the good fight, protecting the rights of South Africans and holding Government accountable to those that elected them.
Hosting a panel including Vuyiseka Dubula, former executive director of the Treatment Action Campaign; Fatima Hassan, executive director of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa; and David Lewis, head and founder of Corruption Watch, Msimang interrogated the role of civil society. The panel agreed on the role of civil society; “civil society’s principle role is to ensure that the state delivers on its mandate to provide a basic goods and services,” said Lewis. “[Civil society doesn’t] deliver goods and services; they oblige the state to produce on its mandate, its promises, and to that extent deliver democracy.”
On threats to civil society the panelists also agreed that we are nowhere near a “central Asian-type dictatorship”. But while we may not be on the road to “dictatorville”, Hassan’s take wasn’t all too comforting: “Not because of some grand ideal commitment to the principles of our constitution, but because there are now too many people waiting in line to benefit from being number one.”
Lewis didn’t see any threats though. He did however issue a warning, saying that just because we see no dictatorship on the horizon, doesn’t mean we can’t rest on our laurels. For Lewis, the issue at hand is South Africans falling asleep post 1994: “we gave government untrammeled power for ten, 15 years, and to expect they are going to hand that over without a fight is ludicrous.”
Lewis summed it up nicely at the end: “… I think civil society needs to defend itself in good times, let alone in bad times, because if you don’t defend yourself in good times the bad times will surely come.”