With one of the highest rates of public protests in the world, South Africa has been referred to as ‘the protest capital of the world’. It can be argued that protests arise in the absence of, or lack of, information about relevant and effective democratic processes. Protests affect everyone, including big businesses, which is why all sectors of society also have a role to play in helping to ensure public democratic empowerment.

A panel discussion on the impact of activism at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2018 explored the determinants for success, how impact can be measured, as well as some of the ways that donors can support activism.

Democratic access and participation – or the lack thereof

“Activists have an important role in society; to create spaces for people to participate in their country’s progress.” This, according to Axolile Notywala, general secretary of the Social Justice Coalition, who elaborated on the importance of activism for ensuring that people are informed and empowered with the necessary resources to effectively engage democratic processes. Notywala also spoke about the activist’s role to mobilise and enable others to independently raise their own issues.

“Activism is constitutionally sanctioned in our participatory democracy,” said Mark Heywood, executive director at Section27. However, he said, inequality of knowledge meant that people did not know their enormous constitutional power.

“If we are talking about activism and inequality, we need to talk about inequality of participation,” said Notywala. As an example of unequal access and participation, he commented on the fact that lack of clarity on how municipalities decide to allocate money means that the majority are excluded from budgeting processes that directly affect them.

Notywala said that activists shouldn’t be praised, for example, for ensuring that an informal settlement has toilets. “It’s not about accolades, because in awarding activism, the poor person’s narrative gets lost — it becomes someone else’s story. The people on the ground should be able to own the issue, and should be empowered with the democratic power that gives them the voice to raise it themselves,” said Notywala.

Corporate citizenry

Policy analyst at the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), Justin Steyn, advised that there were structural and institutional ways for citizens to get involved in local government. He explained that this also applied to corporate citizens, who have long had a tendency towards neutrality. For example, mining companies could work with mining municipalities to create a social compact that would survive beyond mine closures.

Notywala elaborated on the resourcing role that corporate citizenry could play, explaining that underfunded social justice organisations are unable to scale their efforts for greater impact.

Steyn also noted the important role that corporates could play in holding government to account, by participating in meetings or educating employees to be active citizens.

Regarding the proposed solution of building partnerships between businesses and activists, Notywala cautioned that it was important for companies’ support not to be seen as replacement of state responsibilities. He further explained that these partnerships should not be seen to serve a particular agenda, but should be built on the basis of mutual support and a shared understanding that they were part of the democratic project of this country.

However, Steyn warned that these partnerships could not be based on money only, as that would compromise the neutrality of both parties. Instead, there was a need for companies to partner with organisations by providing goods, services, and finding other ways to support grassroots movements. Heywood agreed: “We need to be careful that activism isn’t influenced by a donor or agency. The constitution and social justice should determine which causes we support.”

No more time for neutrality; serious support for activism needed

“For the most part, civil society organisations work within the law. But when people are desperate — when they don’t have a voice — they work outside the law, resulting in the violent protests that the country has been experiencing,” said Heywood.

“South Africa would be very different without activism, and social justice activism in particular,” said Heywood. He made the point that pushback against state capture started not in the courts or in business, but by activists who were prepared to court controversy. Only then did business come on board.

Critiquing business for being scared of activists, Heywood said that while activists were required to professionalise, their supporters would not invest in the systems that could facilitate that. Activism was not fully understood, he explained. “If you want to protect this democracy, you need to start taking activism seriously. But, activism often brings about incremental change, without immediately tangible changes,” he said.

This was why it was important for all parts of society to work together, and particularly for business to participate. “I hope that now we have swung things so far that business does not revert to studied neutrality. If that happens, we will find ourselves in another hole a few years down the line,” said Heywood.

Written by Hilary Alexander