THIS is, to coin a phrase, (the best and the worst of times) for South African activists seeking to use citizen’s organisations to create a fairer society. It is the best because the opportunities for effective action may never have been greater. It is the worst, because current patterns suggest that it is unlikely that activists and their organisations are able to take advantage.

Ironically, the cause of both the opportunity and (much of) the incapacity are the same: the unpopularity among growing numbers of voters, particularly but by no means only in the major cities, of the governing party’s current leadership. One effect has been to force government – and politicians in general – to take more notice of citizens than they have done in the past. This opens opportunities for citizen influence, particularly where it seeks to give voice to the realities of people who are usually denied a voice. Another has been a strong tendency for activism to centre far less on policy change and far more on the governing party and its actions. Coupled with a sharp decline in organisational strength in important parts of civil society, and a failure thus far to see the new political reality as an opportunity, this has left activists ill equipped to use these opportunities to secure much-need change…..more