Civil Society in Africa after Independence

Helge Ronning, Professor, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo

The second phase in the history of the notion of civil society in Africa, which dates from independence in Africa, implies the birth of the deracialised state and the establishment of universal rights. The social group which was in the forefront of the pressing for these changes were the new black African middle classes, and what they demanded was entry to both the civil society and the state. And in the new African countries the state became the centre of social relations.

In the post-independence period the problem around state-civil society relationships in most African countries have been centred to a large degree around the role of the rural majority. They have in most societies been ruled according to colonial structures and systems, also after independence, which implies that their political and legal relations have been decided by local authorities acting directly at the instructions of the urban state structures. This has often taken the form of local societies being organised through the establishment of either state or party organisations. This means that social institutions in the rural areas, with the possible exception of churches, are either of a "pre-modern" type or a direct inheritance from and prolongation of the colonial state, which did not extend the principle of civil society to the colonised.

In this context the struggle between civil society organisations and the state often take the form of an attempt by the state to overpower non-governmental organisations [NGOs] by bringing them under government control. The pretext for the attempt to bringing NGOs into sphere of the state is often given as their financial mismanagement, the lack of control with their funds. But the reality behind the attempts are linked to a fear by government of the potential NGOs have for organising people outside the state structures, and secondly that NGOs with the change in donor policies with emphasis on building civil society institutions now receive funds which earlier would go to government projects. Thus NGOs can be seen to be in direct competetion with government over donor funds. And the rural projects of the NGOs may undermine the control which government has established in the rural areas. An example of this struggle between the state and NGOs as institutions in an embryonic civil society is The Private Voluntary Organisations Act which the Zimbabwean Parliament passed in March 1995, which has the potential of stifling the development of NGOs and turning them into a form of parastatals. The Secretary -- General of the Zimbabwean Human Rights organisation Zim Rights -- Osiah Tungwara -- characterised the law in this way:

... it is unfortunate that the government is introducing autocratic measures to restrict the activities of civil society when the global trend is to give it more freedom in recognition of the people's right to organise themselves for their own development and to participate in civic matters.

The concept of civil society in Africa may consequently be used in a meaningful way when it is seen as being in embryo in a rural situation, and as a struggling entity consisting partly of a variety of NGOs and more or less sponteaneous social movements and relatively weak permanent institutions and organisations in urban areas.

[From Helge Ronning. "Democracy, Civil Society and the Media in Africa in the 90s." Media and the Transition of Ciollective Iderntities. Ed. Tore Slatta. Oslo:University of Oslo, 1996, pages 39-40. Available from Department of Media and Communications [[email protected]].

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