Nelson Mandela Foundation

JOHANNESBURG: On the 12th of October, the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted another instalment of their Critical Dialogue Series, focusing on the 2024 elections and what role civil society should play. The dialogue was hosted at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton and was well attended by members of the civil society sector, activists, movement builders, people from political parties, funding institutions and the private sector. The convening was made possible by the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

The 2024 South African general elections are touted as unprecedented and will define our country’s trajectory. Some have even contrasted 2024 to our first democratic elections in 1994. However, there is concern that civil society is not organised, coordinated and ambitious enough to make the most of the general elections' opportunities.

This presumption is based on the idea that the civil society sector, which often operates outside of the political party space, can play a productive role beyond convening talk shops with no action.

In his keynote address, Terry Tselane, former vice-chairperson of the Electoral Commission of South Africa, noted five areas in which civil society must play a role to ensure a healthy and participatory democracy as well as a successful election process:

  1. Democratic Culture: Advocacy around civic education and ending problematic practices such as disruption and political killings.
  2. Advocacy around electoral policy: Such as the work done to allow independents to run without belonging to a political party.
  3. Capacitating Parties: Especially around coalition governance towards stabilising the political space.
  4. Election Monitoring and Observing: Ensuring that the elections take place and that they are free and fair.
  5. Combatting Disinformation and Misinformation: Particularly around digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence that have the potential to capture an election by manufacturing ignorance and conspiratorial thinking such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Terry went on to describe how civil society must protect its space because political parties who feel threatened by their work want to minimize their role and have a history of harassing and assaulting activists and attacking their credibility.

Lukhona Mnguni, the panel discussion's facilitator and public intellectual, echoed this sentiment in opening the panel. The panel was composed of Noncedo Madubedube, Secretary-General of Equal Education; Lindiwe Mazibuko, former Leader of the Opposition of the Republic of South Africa; Qaanita Hunter who is the Assistant Editor of Politics and Opinion at News24, as well as Jaap de Visser, law professor at the University of the Western Cape.

Lindiwe explored the ways civil society has historically applied a hands-off approach to politics, either believing that they are above politics or that politics are too messy to touch. She described the ways civil society has checked out of politics and how their funders have sometimes even threatened to pull funding if they enter political terrain. This has meant some of our best leaders, our brightest minds and our most motivated activists are not interested in investing their skills and expertise in the state.

This has left the state starved for effective leadership. It is of paramount importance that civil society vigorously and authoritatively play their role within politics, especially in capacitating the state, brokering relationships with organs of the state, and stabilising the political space with their skills and expertise.

What came out of the dialogue was framed well by Qaanita who pointed to the reality that the South African political culture has been saviour-based, and that we outsource the responsibility to resolve and fix issues to the same political figures that have caused these issues. As Qaanita put it, “politics are too expensive to be left to politicians” as the stakes are far too high and the failures of the increasingly incompetent state rise and rise.

Inasmuch as the 2024 elections hold enormous potential to unseat the ruling incumbency which has enjoyed a majority in parliament since 1994, however, Noncedo put it well in reflecting on this moment by reminding us of other moments we failed to take advantage of. She reminded us of the Anti-Zuma years and how that moment has not yielded any structural, systemic, or even cultural changes. She also reminded us of the COVID pandemic and how civil society organised itself for that moment, but again, has failed to sustain that organisation towards pursuing long-term socioeconomic changes in South Africa.

All things considered, the 2024 general elections possess the potential to realign the country with the Constitution and make it a lived reality for everyone in South Africa. With the multiple and compounding crises we have struggled through, South Africa deserves leadership that will uproot systemic inequality, end cycles of gender-based violence, solve the energy crisis and reinstall the dignity of the state.

This dialogue will be followed up by a Critical Dialogue on the land question in today's context and will surely feed into reflections on the upcoming elections.

As we reflect on 10 years since the passing of former President Nelson Mandela, let us be reminded that the legacy lives on through you and I, that nobody is coming to save us, and that we must save each other and ourselves this time.

If you missed this critical dialogue, watch a recording at


For Media Enquiries:

Morongwa Phukubye
Communications Officer
Nelson Mandela Foundation
Tel: +27 72 778 8770

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