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  • Written by  Tshepo Madlingozi, Khulumani Board Member
  • Published in Khulumani Thinking
  • Read 2341 times

The difference between NGOs and Social Movements

Mr. Tshepo Madlingozi Mr. Tshepo Madlingozi

Tshepo Madlingozi will be participating in our upcoming Thinking Africa colloquium. Sally Matthews recently interviewed him about his work. This is the first part of a two part interview.

Tshepo Madlingozi teaches law at the University of Pretoria. He is also a research collaborator with the ALICE project, based in Portugal, which is dedicated to promoting Epistemologies of the South. Tshepo also serves as an Advocacy Adviser and Board Member for the Khulumani Support Group and is a member of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution. He recently co-edited Symbol or Substance:Socio-economic Rights in South Africa (2014). One of Tshepo’s key research areas relates to the use of the law by social movements. As such Tshepo asks some very important questions about how the law (and NGOs providing legal advice) can assist social movements in their attempts to achieve social justice.

Sally Matthews: In the forthcoming Thinking Africa colloquium we will be discussing the role of NGOs in advancing social justice. You have many years’ experience working as advocacy coordinator for an organisation that aims to advance social justice – the Khulumani Support Group which has the stated aim of ‘build[ing] an inclusive and just society in which the dignity of people harmed by apartheid is restored through the process of transforming victims of gross violations of human rights into victors’. Can you briefly explain what Khulumani does?

Tshepo Madlingozi: Thank you. I first would like to point out  that Khulumani is not an NGO, Khulumani explicitly self-identifies as a social movement. I will elaborate on this point later. Khulumani was set up in 1995 in response to the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Victims and survivors of pre-1994 gross violations of human rights – including killings, disappearences, violence of a sexual nature, unlawful detention, denationalization, torture and destruction of property – had not been consulted in the setting up the TRC; nonetheless they decided that they will not be silent or silenced but will ‘Speak Out’ – hence ‘Khulumani’. During the TRC, Khulumani members worked to offer those testifying support and to make sure the TRC functioned in a victim-centred way. After the TRC, victims realised that to a large extent the TRC had been merely an exercise in legitimating the elite settlement, that victims’ were merely fodder for facilitating ‘the transition’ and that victims’ pain and suffering had been used by the new black ruling elite to extract concessions from the white establishment.

As one of the first post-1994 social movements the experience of the pre and post TRC processes taught Khulumani several lessons;  some of which were articulated explicitly by members, others less explicitly. The experiences I am referring to here are, inter alia,  experiences relating to the lack of consultation in the setting up of the TRC (only big human rights NGOs and churches were consulted), the fact that narrow legalistic definitions and requirements of the TRC Act excluded many victims, that  the TRC operated in a manner favourable to powerful actors (by being perpetrator-friendly), that beneficiaries of Apartheid and colonialism were given a free pass into the ‘new South Africa’, that the drafting of TRC recommendations did not involve victims, and that resonant cultural symbols and rituals – such as ubuntu and traditional African cleansing ceremonies – could be mobilised and abused in service of ends that had nothing to do with African conceptions of justice and in ways that paradoxically perpetuated epistemicide. These experiences taught victims that there were many continuities in the State mode of politics between the pre-1994 and post-1994 regimes in the sense of regarding poor and vulnerable people as dispensable in decision-making processes, that statist processes should always be approached with suspicion, and that laws derived from the ‘best-constitution-in-the-world’ can be exclusionary.

After the TRC, victims worked to challenge ‘the unfinished business of the TRC’, and today Khulumani’s vision is encapsulated in the movement’s vision: ‘from victims to active citizens’. This vision is propelled by the slogan ‘the past is in the present’. Khulumani works to make the unrealized demands for reparations, redress, social reconciliation and community re-harmonisation, healing and social justice possible.

Sally Matthews: How easy is it to differentiate between NGOs and social movements? Are the lines between them not often blurred?

Tshepo Madlingozi: Khulumani Support Group is a membership-based organisation with branches made up of between 50 and sometimes more than 100 people in different provinces. The most active branches meet twice a month, while some meet perhaps once in three months. The branches elect representatives to respective Provincial Steering Committees. The highest decision-making body of Khulumani is the National Steering Committee. A National Contact Centre is based in Johannesburg. Based on this bottom-up structure and the fact that members identify their biggest victory as being able to develop a collective identity and a sense of belonging when they previously felt alone and their pain unacknowledged, Khulumani self-identifies as a social movement.

It is rather voguish to claim that the lines between the forms of social movement and NGO blur. Non-governmental Organisations are usually made up of a professional staff, have registered themselves in terms of the Non-Profit Organisations Act, rely on and are inspired by donor and funders’ programmes, usually have a ‘stakeholder’ relationship with the state and have client communities who never have any meaningful say in the policies drawn up by the NGO ‘programme officers’. In that sense, NGOs can be very statist in their mode of operation. A more important distinction – at least for my activist and academic purposes – is that NGOs inhabit the sphere of civil society. Social movements are made up of people and organisations that are often at the margins of the sphere of civil society or worse totally excluded from this sphere. In the sphere of civil society liberal democracy and its institutional procedures and processes obtain. Social movements for their part often operate in the sphere where a mixture of patronage, repression, social fascism and illiberalism are the order of the day. While State-NGO relationships are adorned with parliamentary submissions, angry ‘OP-Eds’, police-sanctioned marches, ‘workshopping’ and ‘stakeholder-meetings’, talk-radio face-offs, and litigation; State-movement dialogue is usually mediated by bullets, tyre-barricades, arrests, disruptive marches and general harassment by state and non-state elites. It is not far-fetched to suggest that, in neoApartheid South Africa, NGOs function in what Fanon, with Algeria and South Africa in mind, designated the ‘zone of beings’, while social movements, as the many cases of police torture and protestor killings suggest, operate in the ‘zone of non-beings’. Or to invoke another theorist, Boaventura de Sousa Santos and a concept he deploys in relation to the modes of governance operating in the Global North and the Global South, there is an ‘abyssal line’ where on one side of the line – the civil society side – governance is geared towards managing the tension between regulation and emancipation; while on the other side of the line appropriation and coercion are the order of the day.

Having said that, it is true that lines are often blurred. The TAC has become an even more ‘professionalised movement’ with a multi-million dollar budget and highly (formally_ educated officials and interns. Because of the nature of its constituency – overwhelmingly middle-aged, often sickly and having suffered for more than two decades – Khulumani often forgo tactical repertoires associated with social movements for more in-system tactics and innovative cultural forms of protests. Likewise, somebody not familiar with the out-of-public operations of Abahlali base Mjondolo, and choices forced on the movement by repression, will see Abahlali clamouring for ‘meaningful engagement’, and respect for court processes and think that these ‘in-system’ tactics and civil society jargon make Abahlali a membership-based civil society organisation. So yes, lines sometimes get blurred during the flow and ebb of struggle, but I still think that the distinction is important in order to highlight the statist nature of NGOs and their complicity in maintaining a truncated form of democracy. I am, however, impatient with scholars who seek to make the conceptual distinction on the basis of a ‘social movement’ needing to have some ‘counter-hegemonic’ or worse, ‘revolutionary’, strategies and tactics to be anointed as a ‘social movement’.

From NGOs and Social Justice in Africa - A blog related to the fourth Thinking Africa colloquium to be held at Rhodes University, South Africa, in Sept 2014: http://thinkingafricangos.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-difference-between-ngos-and-social_21.html

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