Nelson Mandela Foundation

Earth 1571179 1920

From the 11th to the 13th of November, civil society actors gathered at the Earthrise Mountain Lodge to discuss the future of civil society and the state. Informing the dialogue was the need to interrogate the complexities that have disrupted the current world order as our traditional modes of analysis as well as tools for organising and creating civil society movements have become strained. Underpinning all these interactions, amongst others, is growing inequality, increasing nationalism, racism and xenophobia, the fourth industrial revolution, the dominance of the military industrial complex, international finance and the existential threat posed by global warming.

A diverse group of participants were chosen and were drawn from established civil society and advocacy organisations, local community leaders, academia, student movements, the arts, social enterprises, donor organisations and media. The discussions were informed by two provocation pieces on the future of civil society (available here).

Much of the dialogue concerned the nature and future of civil society and the need to make sure that local issues become global issues. It was argued that in order to do this there is a need for greater collaboration and co-operation between people and the creation of a space for the practice of ‘real’ dialogue. The dialogue therefore sought to test some of the models and methods that could be used in this approach whilst building for a more sustained effort in the future.

On the State and Society

Whilst civil society remains a space for the defence and advancement of people, civil society will always remain in conflict with itself. However, we should use these complications and contradictions to engage with one another and to build upon. Democracy must be built from below and there is a need to build from the grassroots with the interests of the people first. As noted by a participant, in traditional Imbizo’s[1], the king spoke last and only to summarise the will of the people. However, whilst democracy is built from the bottom it should also influence global policy. Furthermore, we should use the signing of global compacts such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement to reach down to the grassroots and to enable positive change. It was noted that our current forms of activism and civil society have often become detached, corporatized and bureaucratized from the grassroots level. It was also noted that there is a need to return to indigenous wisdoms to help solve many parts of our current malaise.

There was a level of contestation over whether civil society should work with current institutional structures and look for the ‘possible’ or whether there should be a rejection of the status quo. It was also argued that there is a need to look for the entry point to engage and a need to reconceptualise what would replace that which does not work. Moreover, there is a need to understand that post-1989 the locus of power is now in financial institutions and bodies such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank and that fundamentally shifts the reactions of civil society.

Many those in the group were in agreement that the new forces of change will no longer be driven by the traditional civil society organisations, but instead by mass movements. Traditional NGO’s also need to critically reflect on their role in facilitating change and they should ask themselves if they are part of the problem. Many NGO’s, for example, are untransformed despite them calling for the transformation of other institutions. Where NGO’s could have an important role would be in remaining and developing capacity in being a conduit between the state and society. It was argued that South Africa was in need of a “grand dialogue”, the last which was held in the 1990’s about the future of the country. This ‘grand dialogue’ would require input from all sectors of society as we look toward a re-imagination and rebuilding of society and NGO’s and civil society could play an integral role.  

As states and business collaborate in committing crimes, there has to be an organising for the protection of people. People themselves must be ‘decommodified’ and those engaged must have a broader outlook and understanding of political, social, economic and environmental factors rather than a focus on financial gain. For example, unions in seeking a provident fund for the workers they represent will seek the highest rate of investment. However, they instead could interrogate this strategy and instead include the social, environmental and human capital costs. The state itself should be reimagined into “being an enabler of peace rather than an instrument of violence”. An important strategy in achieving this is to avoid the aggregation of power at an apex and instead flatten out the structure of society and reduce the inequality of the current system.

On the development of a sustainable and equitable future, there were calls to harness technology to provide a real community and for inequality to be reduced through radical means. The community should be centred and the community should own assets rather than it remaining in private hands. There is also a need to develop solidarities across boundaries so that workers for example in Germany are engaged with workers in South Africa.

Following the discussion nine lines of inquiry were developed, these being:

How do we reimagine the state and to see it as an enabler rather than enforcer?
How do we counter the constitutional fundamentalism that has become prevalent and regressive?
How do we counter the dominant modes of knowledge construction?
Can we build global action and solidarity and make the local global.
What is the new economic imagination required to tackle inequality?
How do we build real communities in a digital age?
Can social entrepreneurship be the link required?
How do we establish solidarities from below?
What are the countervailing forces of direct democracy?

Four key lines of discussion were also developed and will be expanded upon in future dialogues; these include;

The Re-imagining of a global society with a common destiny: Whilst borders and seas separate countries, all people on the planet share a ‘global commons’ and are part of a global ‘village’. There is a need to protect this global commons and to tackle global problems through global solutions that is governed by the people. This will aim to build a just, sustainable and peaceful world.
The Re-imagining of a society built on values and principles of freedom, equality, dignity and democracy: A re-imaging of democracy is needed that will create real, equitable, peaceful and sustainable communities. Communities themselves should produce socially useful labour that produces socially useful goods and services to meet the needs to people. The economy should serve society rather than society serving the economy. Furthermore, there should be the cultivation of local social entrepreneurship. Importantly, we should learn from indigenous knowledge and philosophies as alternative visions for societal development, for example, Ubuntu and Buen Vivir.
The Re-imagining of the nature and character of the State which is governed by the people: It was agreed that the nation state and nations are evolving as new countervailing forces in favour of a more direct democracy challenge the electoral processes of political parties. This will require a need to understand the law but also the process of legitimation that underpins the law. The state needs to change from being an arbiter of the law to one that enables social justice, peace and societal development
The Re-imagining of humanity and its relationship with the environment: Humanity must be advanced through knowledge, culture, harmony and healing. Building and advancing humanity requires an understanding of the anthroposcene. It was further argued that the “The Earth Charter” and “The Rights of Mother Earth” should form the base of supreme global compacts.

[1] A traditional gathering for the discussion of public policy