The Role of Civil Society in Democracy Consolidation. Rethinking State-Civil Society Relations in South Africa

Academic Paper, 2019

26 Pages, Grade: 67.5


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Conceptualization of civil society

3. Linz’ and Stepan’s Consolidation theory
3.1 Civil society



6.1 Disposition of two democratically elected presidents
6.2 Civil society provided social services
6.3 Civil Society Organisations (CSO) have fought to defend the constitution and democratic institutions
6.4 Civil society educated people about their democratic rules
6.5 Civil society has fought against out of control corruption


8. References

1. Introduction

Democratic consolidation has become one of the most increasingly important phenomena in post-colonial literature and international relations. Countries like South Africa, Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria and many other African countries are classified as either flawed democracies or electoral democracies. More than two decades since independence, many African countries have gone through the process of democratization, South Africa’s coming as late as 1994 after many years of independence. Scholars believe and argue that it is now time for African countries to focus their attention on consolidating their democracies; South Africa is one of the countries argued to have embarked on democratic consolidation route (Kearsy, 2007). For a country to have a consolidated democracy, it must have a vibrant, free, active and highly rated civil society. As Mutalipova’s study argues that, South Africa has not been a consolidating democracy between 2005 and 2015. This is because it has not fulfilled the five arenas of Linz and Stepan’s theory of consolidating democracy. This is because South Africa continues to face challenges that hinder democratic consolidation such as corruption, misappropriation of state apparatus, lack of accountability, political autonomy, mass poverty, unemployment and ineffective empowerment of the civil society.

Nuhu (2011) asserts that the contribution of civil society organizations towards democratic consolidation in Africa has gained considerate amount of attention in the World over. In fact, the continued involvement of civil society organizations in the current democratic dispensation across the length and breadth of the African continent has come with concerns and the need for civic education as well as political socialization. Thus, the effectiveness of civil society organizations in this regard will affect, negatively or positively, the democratization process and particularly its consolidation in any democratic system, especially developing socio-political milieu like Africa. Furthermore it is apparently an undisputable fact that several studies have focused on democratization, whilst very few have put accent on its consolidation.

During colonialism, civil society organizations were relatively stronger and popular as they embarked on the struggle for independence. They collaborated with their governments to fight the colonizers, advocate for human right protection and better treatment for their people, prevent. In other words, civil society was pro-active; it had a significant influence, as well a well legitimized and defined role to play in African countries. After independence, civil society’s influence has regressed. Civil society now play second fiddle to state power and authority, instead it takes a reactionary approach to issues, as the study in Zambia by Kaliba (2014) revealed. Civil society in Zambia lacks a sustained engagement with the government; instead it takes a reactionary approach to issues of social services to include the opening up of society to plurality of views in order to enhance development outcomes (Mutesa, 2009). The vicious cycle of poverty threatens citizens’ participation, leading to unequal development and distribution of wealth and thereby reinforcing a lack of platforms to facilitate participation. This paves the way for the emergence of authoritarian populists who threaten to reverse the strides made in many African countries’ young democracies.

This situation shows the need for an effective civil society to play a complementary role to the state in demcratisation process. However, it remains to be seen whether the nature of interaction between the state and civil society promotes the growth of a vibrant civil society and enhances development. After independence, dictators and authoritarian leaders such as Mugabe, Idi Amin of Uganda emerged. They limited the space for civil societies to maintain their grip on power and authority. Media outlets were owned and controlled by the state and any civil society organizations that opposed their authoritarian regimes were immediately shut down, this weakened civil society activism. Even in democratic countries like South Africa and Namibia, civil society organizations do not have the freedom and the popularity that they once had during colonial times, as media outlets are somewhat dependent on government for funding and resources, whereas pressure groups are not necessarily resourceful to keep the governments accountable enough to consolidate their democracies, to advocate for human rights and maintain the regular checks and balances. Civil society organisations have also become increasingly dependent on donors (mostly western), which is conflictual to their local agendas. Civil society are relegated and allowed little space in the political order. In South Africa for example the powers of CSO are fairly limited and tied closely to the state thereby making them susceptive to conflict of interest practices. Democracy in Southern Africa (like in Zambia, Zimbabwe, DRC, Namibia) and in South Africa, in particular cannot be consolidated without the involvement of well-structured and well supported vibrant civil society.

2. Conceptualization of civil society

To begin with, it is imperative to understand that civil society is a highly contested concept that is open to a myriad of definitions. Some scholars define it in terms of values and norms, as a collective noun, a space for action, and an antidote to the state (Kaliba, 2014). I concur with Van Rooy though when he argued that at conceptual level, civil society is to be a historically bound concept that varies from one society to another. As used in development circles, civil society encompasses a larger population beyond relief NGOs, including groups such as social movement agents, human rights organizations and advocacy groups (Van Rooy, 2008).

According to Habib (2003) civil society is the organized expression of various interests and values operating in the triangular space between the family, state, and the market. (Habib and Kotze 2002:3). This definition conceptualizes civil society as an entity distinct from both the market and the state. Of course traditional Hegelian definitions of the term include the market. This paper was inclined to base the definition on Habib’s conceptualization as the author was convinced by Habib’s argument. Habib was persuaded by Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato.s comprehensive and defining work on the subject of civil society conceptualization, which makes a coherent case for why the market should be excluded from the definition of civil society. For Cohen and Arato, the actors of what they call political and economic society control and manage state power and economic production and this imparts to them a different strategic purpose and function from civil society actors. In their words, political and economic actors cannot subordinate (their) strategic and instrumental criteria to the patterns of normative integration and open-ended communication characteristic of civil society. (Cohen and Arato 1992: ix). This then makes it essential for civil society to be analytically distinguished from both a political society of parties, political organizations, and political publics (in particular, parliaments) and an economic society composed of organizations of production and distribution, usually firms, cooperatives, (and) partnerships (Cohen and Arato 1992: ix).

This is not to say there aren’t other definitions or alternative conceptualization of the term. On the contrary, Kirty Ranchod, for example used a different definition of what is to be referred to as civil society in her study, she argued that civil society should be referred to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups. This definition basically refers to civil society as all collective voluntary action outside the family, state and the market (business). According to Thomson (2004:5), civil society can be defined as ‘[t]he organisations that arise out of the voluntary association within society, found between the extended family and the state.

3. Linz’ and Stepan’s Consolidation theory

A consolidated democracy needs to have five interrelating arenas in place that reinforce one another. If the people of a territory feel that they lack identification or feel the need that they want to create or join another state, the democratization process is faced with unresolvable problems (Linz & Stepan, 1996). As such, the existence of a functioning state is the first requirement for achieving a modern democratic regime. Once a functioning state exists, five mutually reinforcing arenas must also exist for a democratic consolidation. If such conditions are non-existent, they must be created and put into place.

According to Linz and Stepan (1996), in a consolidated democracy, the five different arenas are constantly in mediation with one another. An example that demonstrates this would be that a civil society in a democracy needs the support of a rule of law. That law would guarantee the rights of association and needs the support of an impartial state apparatus (Linz & Stepan, 1996, p. 9). They will effectively impose legal sanctions in the case of any attempts to resort to illegal acts to prevent the liveliness of civil society, by stopping groups from exercising their democratic right to organize. Furthermore, the political society is the primary source of the constitution and major laws and guidelines that state apparatus make sure the population conforms to. They also produce the overall regulatory framework for the economic society (Linz & Stepan 1996, p.14-15).

3.1 Civil society

In order to have a consolidated democracy, first, the conditions must exist for the development of a free and lively civil society. In an ideal world, civil society possesses the power to destroy a non-democratic regime. A robust civil society may assist in advancing transitions. It may also generate political alternatives monitor the government and the state. As a result, a lively and independent civil society is of grave importance in all stages of the democratization process. (Linz & Stepan 1996 p. 8-9)

Civil society offers an environment for social movements, self - organizing groups and individuals, to operate relatively autonomous from the state (Linz & Stepan, 1996, p. 9). These can either be women´s groups, neighborhood associations, intellectual organizations, trade unions and so forth – the list is long. Ordinary citizens may also operate on their own, without membership in any socially formed group or organization. These individuals can be seen; for example, attending a protest march. Sometimes these individuals may cause overwhelming results, especially when they come big in numbers. We have seen this when representatives of the regime are forced to take a stand and consider a growing liberalization towards a regime change. In the most successful cases, such efforts have paid off as it has sparked a change towards the liberalization of a state. Civil society has long been known for generating ideas and helping to monitor the governance of a state.

The civil society has played a key role in ensuring that countries go through democracy transition processes. Most of the democratic changes in South Africa were facilitated by the mobilization of the civil society (Tangri & Southall, 2008, p. 702), BCM during Apartheid and others during the 1994 transition to democracy.

Generally, civil societies play a crucial part in determining the failures and success of democracy in a state, 2004, 2009, and 2014 elections in South Africa displayed the conditions conducive to the establishment of independent civil society. The contemporary civil society is differentiated in South Africa by the fact that it not only reflects the social structure realities in the country but also transcends the racialized civil society relations (Ponte et al., 2007, p. 947). The civil society started gaining fame and prominence during the time of apartheid when the blacks were not allowed to engage directly with the whites. The civil society ensured that the rights of the workers were improved through public demonstrations. Presently, the civil society has partnered with the state institutions to ensure that that the individual rights and freedoms are protected irrespective of the race and gender (Hassan, 2013); this has reduced their impact on the state and deprived them of their most distinct character, autonomy! Nonetheless, as the study in Zambia (Kaliba, 2014) demonstrated, democracy cannot be consolidated without a free and vibrant civil society, and democracy does not necessarily mean the flourishing of civil society. He asserted that while a wave of democracy has swept Zambia over the years (evidenced by the smooth transition of power through multiparty elections), the nature of this democracy still does not allow for the emergence of a vibrant civil society (Mutesa, 2009). CSOs remain sidelined and undermined. They do not enjoy the freedom and space to act freely and independently. It has been observed through history that Zambian CSOs have had to constantly negotiate for civic space whenever there has been a change in government (the presidency, to be precise). In this view, Diamond (1996) distinguishes between electoral democracy and liberal democracy. Political freedom of speech, free and independent media, and freedom of association are clearly being undermined in Zambia through the laws. This then casts Zambia’s democracy within the “electoral democracy” tradition. Ironically, it takes an independent and effective civil society to transition the country’s democracy from its current “electoral” status into a liberal democracy. Generally, civil society has also a role to play in consolidating liberal democracies.

According to some CSOs interviewed in the study, the relationship between the Zambian government and civil society organizations is laden “with suspicion, hostility and conflict.” The government views CSOs involved in service provision as partners, whereas it finds those involved in advocacy and governance work to be unsettling and somewhat provocative. In like manner, CSOs involved in service provision get positive public media coverage, while the CSOs dealing with governance issues that may be critical of the government are rarely covered by the state media (Kaliba, 2014).


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The Role of Civil Society in Democracy Consolidation. Rethinking State-Civil Society Relations in South Africa
University of Namibia
State and Civil Society
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Well structured piece providing insights into current literature.
role, south, relations, state-civil, rethinking, consolidation, democracy, society, civil, africa
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Joseph Nangombe Tobias (Author), 2019, The Role of Civil Society in Democracy Consolidation. Rethinking State-Civil Society Relations in South Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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