From Radical Movement to Conservative NGO and Back Again? A Case Study of the Democratic Left Front in South Africa


From Radical Movement to Conservative NGO and Back Again? A Case Study of the Democratic Left Front in South Africa

Luke Sinwell

The relationship between social movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has recently been called into question by a number of radical authors who have pointed out that ‘the revolution will not be funded’ (INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, 2007). With the proliferation of NGOs internationally, struggles for social change risk becoming nine-to-five jobs that benefit the pockets of careerists, and thereby hold little hope for bringing about fundamental social change. Drawing from the Latin American context since the 1980s, Petras (1997) demonstrates that there has been ‘a direct relation between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGOs’. He further laments a situation in which ‘NGOs became the “community face” of neoliberalism’ (p. 1). In NGO discourse and even in the public’s mind, NGOs were closer to ‘the people’, had the answers and were good. This was counter­poised to the state, which was perceived as evil and the enemy. Terms such as ‘popular power’, ‘empowerment’, and development from the ‘bottom-up’ have been employed, increasingly from the 1980s, by a wide range of actors – the World Bank, social movements, NGOs, local governments and national states themselves. It is therefore vital to closely investigate the politics of those NGOs, social movements, states and others that have a relationship to popular organizations or communities and often wield power over them.

In South Africa, the time for (Nelson) Mandela-mania has long ended,1 inequality between races has increased (South Africa is now considered one of the most unequal countries in the world) and a new wave of resistance movements like the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Landless People’s Movement and Abahlali baseMjondolo (shack dwellers movement) have emerged arguably to contest the legitimacy of the state. Bond (2007) has argued that South Africa is the home of the most protests per capita in the world: ten thousand per year. One analyst has called a recent wave of service delivery protests, whereby communities have risen up to demand access to basic services such as water, electricity, and housing, and also to hold the local authorities accountable, the ‘Rebellion of the Poor’ (Alexander, 2010). In part, this is intended to signify the insurgency of primarily localized protests that tend to operate rather independently from any umbrella organization and, in many instances (at least initially), claim power from the state on their own terms. Sinwell et al. (2009) have traced the historical process through which four communities, having been excluded from the institutional channels provided by the government such as ward committees and development forums, then resorted to other more contentious tactics including direct action utilizing marches, boycotts and road occupations – leading to a heavy state response in the form of police repression.

Social movements have emerged in opposition to neoliberal policies, to meet basic needs, to address socio-economic rights, or to resist government’s attempts at repression (Ballard, Habib, & Valodia, 2006, p. 2). Because social movements put forth alternative ideas of development, they are often stigmatized by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government. According to Desai (2002), leaders of these movements in South Africa are labeled ‘agitator, radical, and counter-revolutionary’ (p. 16). Social movements therefore represent alternative sites of power. While initially activist writing and scholarship viewed social movements in binary opposition to the state, increasingly scholars have problematized this relationship given the power of the state to control militant communities who rise up to challenge specific local interventions of the hegemonic and ruling ANC (Sinwell, 2011). Furthermore, the demands of social movements often fit within the neoliberal parameters of the ANC.

This chapter uses a case study of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) to investigate alternatives to the NGOization of movements in post-apartheid South Africa. The DLF is a self-funded initiative established in South Africa in October 2008 in the context of the global economic crisis. It seeks to create a united anti-capitalist front of action, which is rooted in labor and community-based struggles. While NGOs have tended to assist movements in fighting legal battles within the confines of the constitution, they have also criticized communities’ use of contentious tactics like the burning of property and the occupation of houses and roads. In contrast, the DLF has publicly indicated that the tactics of direct action and civil disobedience are necessary and legitimate forms of protest under a neoliberal state, but little is known about the politics of the DLF’s actual practices and future trajectory. Drawing from interviews and participant observation, this chapter explores the relationship between local community-based organizations and the DLF. It questions the extent to which the DLF is able to build a counter-hegemonic force and thereby to offer a viable alternative to the NGOization of struggles in post-apartheid South Africa.

A number of questions have been raised about the NGOization of local struggles in post-apartheid South Africa, where neoliberal policies have been adopted since 1996 by the ANC. Referring to the late 1980s and early 90s, Hlatshwayo (2009) writes that NGOs shifted from ‘popular struggles to policy-making’ (p. 24). With the transition to democracy in 1994, NGOs, which were largely oppositional (to the state) during the anti-apartheid struggle, have had to redefine their role and now act primarily as service delivery agents for the ANC. In this context, some have warned that the reformist character of NGOs may have led to the containment of militant and potentially counter-hegemonic struggles in communities. In this regard, Mueller-Hirth (2009) explains that:

NGO staff distanced themselves from social movements … by pitting ‘constructive engagement’ with the state against ‘marching on the street’. Institutionalized politics, the media and the courts were in some interviews portrayed as the legitimate and proper channels through which policy can be impacted in the democratic era. Conversely, mass mobilization was portrayed as outdated, with the effect of it seemingly being no longer acceptable to use what was constructed as backward apartheid-era struggle tactics (p. 431).

In this chapter I suggest that, in the South African context, the NGOization of movements arises not only through the agency of NGOs, but also through various other social interactions with so-called ‘outsider’ academics, lawyers, the employment of the ruling ANC alliance, or even through local activists that carry with them conservative or liberal political agendas. These agents have expectations that social change must occur in the institutional spaces prescribed, and largely controlled, by the state. NGOization therefore occurs when agents intervene in local struggles undertaken by the working class or poor and have the effect of making them less militant. In other words, they shift the terrain of struggle from using direct action, at times illegal, to softer struggles in courts, more ‘controlled’ marches or even negotiations and workshops which are largely displaced from the realities of popular struggles. The following section discusses the politics of grassroots struggles in South Africa and critically reflects on how umbrella movements have engaged with them. The chapter then hones in to assess the DLF’s relationship to grassroots struggles and seeks to understand the extent to which the DLF contributes to the NGOization of movements, or potentially offers a counter-hegemonic alternative through its engagement with these struggles.

Politics and interventions in grassroots struggles in South Africa

The relationship between so-called outsiders such as academics, NGO officials, and lawyers to grassroots organizations has been hotly debated in the South African context. One radical political activist and academic, Ashwin Desai (2006), has suggested that intellectuals bring their ‘political diseases’ (p. 2) to community-based organizations, thus indicating the negative and perhaps exploitative role that academics play in movements. He later wrote that social movements in post-apartheid South Africa have become a ‘spent force’, ‘more like a conservative NGO, than a radical movement’ (cited in Bohmke, 2010, p. 1). In a recent paper entitled ‘Combined and Uneven Marxism’, which attempts to come to grips with the limitations of community-based organizations to achieve a radical alternative, Bond, Desai, and Ngwane (2011, n.p.) have indicated that, ‘in many cases what started out as insurgencies outside the control of the [ANC] Alliance were siphoned off into calls for participation, legal challenges, “voice”’.

Nevertheless, several attempts have been made to coordinate local protests in a way that challenges the ruling ANC and advances beyond the NGOization of struggles. Founded in Johannesburg in 2001, the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) is an overtly anti-capitalist social movement which provides an important space in which communities can come together to learn about the power of the working class, and in doing so strategize ways to force the government to listen to the demands of the people. At its peak, the APF consisted of about 35 affiliates, mostly from poor communities who were fighting for basic services. The APF regularly held socialist education campaigns bringing together many of the affiliates. In the Gauteng province, the APF assisted communities, particularly those using direct action (such as marches, community controlled electricity, and water reconnections) and the courts, to fight for their rights – thereby providing a much-needed political home for these new civic formations.

One of the central affiliates within the APF, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), is a good example of this. SECC emerged as a result of cost recovery schemes that have been implemented in Soweto. When people’s electricity is shut off as a result of their inability to pay the power utility company ESKOM, members of the SECC have illegally reconnected them in order to claim what they believe is their right to electricity. Within a six-month period in 2003, SECC claims to have reconnected 3000 households (Ngwane, 2003, p. 47, cited in Egan & Wafer, 2004, p. 9).

Elsewhere however, I have argued that there is a disjuncture between the socialist ideology of the APF and its local affiliates (Sinwell, 2011). I suggest that local movements, which appear initially to hold a radical politics because of the militancy which they exert, often die out as a result of minor state, or ANC, concessions in the form of very basic service delivery. The APF has lost its public face and is now moribund.

The Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC), also formed in 2001, is part of a broader campaign to ‘resist disconnections and evictions as well as to intervene in city policies pertaining to housing and public services’ (Oldfield & Stokke, 2006, p. 111). The AEC understands that it is unlikely to be effective in the institutional spaces provided by the government. Two AEC activists explain that:

Council doesn’t listen to us if we go through the right channels. They don’t listen. They make as if they listen if you go through the right channels. They don’t take notice of us. But, if we do what we do, then immediately they respond … If they take too long, then we do our own thing. (Interview, Anonymous, 14.08.03, in Oldfield & Stokke, 2006, p. 118)

When resisting against evictions and claiming their right to water and electricity, the AEC uses the combination of institutional engagement with authorities, and non-institutional mechanisms such as popular protest and legal routes to meet their demands. Abahlali baseMjondolo, a social movement in Durban, has also attempted to open up alternative spaces in which marginalized groups can influence government policies. Referring to Abahlali’s use of popular protest, Pithouse (2006) has noted that ‘this kind of direct popular confrontation with official power is where we should invest our hopes for democratization’ (p. 7).

In by far the most critical academic piece of writing on Abahlali, which has often been written up in popular writing as a radical democratic umbrella movement of the poor (see Bohmke (2010) for more details), Walsh (2008

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