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Thursday 24 January 2019
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The Role of Civil Society in a Modern Democracy

The appointment of Rent Control Boards in various regions is a victory for civil society in the Namibian political landscape that signifies the importance of grassroots participation in lobbying, advocacy and social mobilization of the masses to effect change for broader society in general and its representative interest groups in particular.
Namibia is effectively a One-Party State with SWAPO dominating at Constituency, Regional and National level. The dominance of one party in a multi-party democracy puts elected officials at a crossroad when their personal interest is at variance with serving for the public good.
Once elected into positions of power, officials are co-opted by the party elite and cowered into towing the ‘party line’ even when they may hold differing opinions from the leadership. The balance of power and political dynamics at play informs that towing the party line is not synonymous with towing the line of those who wield greater political, economic and administrative power. The two are often at odds with each other. The two are often nuanced.
Beyond the confines of partisan politics there is an under-represented silent demographic yearning for access to land to build shelter for themselves and their families. Unemployed youth with a desire to earn a decent wage in order to improve their lot and students in dire need of financial assistance to pursue qualifications and skills training as a means to greater economic opportunity in order to achieve self-reliance.
The Minister of Industrialization, Trade and SME Development’s insistence on not honoring government’s commitment to the establishment of rent control boards in line with the Rent Ordinance of 1977 provoked the Affirmative Repositioning Movement into seeking relief from the courts on the matter.

To save face and spare the government further embarrassment, Tjekero Tweya, the minister responsible conceded to the demands made by the Civil Society Organization and put into operation the Rent Ordinance in a matter of days without giving proper explanation as to why he was dragging his feet in the first place.
The example given above can be written as a case study for the text books to illustrate how civil society promotes people centered development, political reform and effects changes by giving a voice to the marginalized who find themselves on the fringes of the political mainstream.

Civil Society Organizations promote economic and social inclusion by informing citizens of their right to actively participate in shaping the character of the society in which they live. Social mobilization through facebook and twitter has gained prominence and made it easier for civil society to reach their target audience and receive feedback by coming together to debate, discuss crowd fund and influence the conduct of the state.
Because civil society organizations are driven by their member’s interests and not for the purpose of realizing a profit, their survival is dependent on the goodwill of donors and independent financiers. This can leave them vulnerable to undue influence in defining, advocating and pursuing their objectives.

Money appeals to everyone, not as a means in itself but as a means to an end. To execute a successful advocacy program requires a considerable amount of money to pay for, inter alia, legal fees, staff allowances, office space, and consumables such as printing cartridges, television airtime, radio airtime, travelling costs.
To prevent being co-opted or captured by interests groups who want to take advantage of the prominence/popularity of a civil society organization. Civil Society ought to be vigilant and tread carefully in deciding who to allow into their midst and from whom they are prepared to accept money and on what conditions they allow donors to finance their programs.
It is necessary for the lines between civil society and political parties not to become blurred. The two are mutually exclusive and should not become bedfellows. The tragedy is that more-often- than- not civil society organizations are used as testing grounds to gauge whether the political space is ready for a new entrant into its space.
Lured by the trappings of greater political power and prestige in the form of salaried office in a parliamentary system of governance. Civil society organizations like the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) in Namibia abandon their origin, register as political parties are beaten at the polls and cease to exist all together.
This is the tragedy in the narrative of civil society organizations that needs to be overcome in making them a true force to be reckoned on the Namibian political landscape.

Vitalio Angula is a socio-political commentator. Some of the ideas in this article are informed by a lecture presented by Zoe Titus Strategic Coordinator at the Namibia Media Trust during the course:  “Civil Society and African Media Policy in the Digital Age” with the University of Witwatersrand offered on the Wits X edX platform.




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