THE national-level drive for black majority rule and democracy in South Africa is being paralleled by a grass-roots push for local empowerment. While negotiations between Pretoria and the African National Congress, the country's leading anti-apartheid group, periodically bog down, blacks' quest for local empowerment has made some gains.
This month, 160 delegates at a consultative conference announced plans to establish a national federation of civic associations independent of all established political groups. (Civic associations are elected bodies lobbying for better living conditions and local government. They played a key role in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, but were weakened or destroyed by relentless state repression.)
The aim of a national body - to be known as the South African National Civic Association (Sanca) and launched in August - is to ensure a truly democratic order in which blacks' demands for economic and social advancement are kept high on the political agenda. By cutting across political and ethnic divisions, the federation could be a catalyst for black unity and help build a "patriotic front" to negotiate with the government. By promoting unity, it could also help resolve intra-black disagreements and d e
fuse township violence, which has become the major obstacle to political negotiations.
In adopting the civic association strategy, black activists are taking their cues from the experience of Eastern Europe - the spontaneous and radical transformations that swept the region in 1989 as well as the entrenched political, economic, and ethnic obstacles to building a new political system.
Black activists say the need for such an organization has been apparent since the disbanding earlier this year of the United Democratic Front (UDF), an umbrella group which was instrumental in reviving the anti-apartheid cause in 1983. The UDF's successful resistance strategy focused on producing incremental improvements in such areas as housing, transportation, education, health-care, and local government which ensured a reallocation of resources from affluent white neighborhoods to impoverished black t
"All the energy that was harnessed during those years needs to be preserved," says UDF treasurer Azhar Cachalia. "I can't see how we are going to change what apartheid has done in the next five to ten years. We are going to need a vibrant civil society to ensure this transformation reaches marginalized communities with limited political clout."
Establishing grass-roots structures, activists say, will build on the "culture of democracy" that was emerging in the 1980s. Such structures will play a political role for the near future, but that could change to a watchdog role once a transfer of power to the majority takes place. As Mr. Cachalia puts it, "It would be naive to assume that the new government will bring democracy."
This sentiment is echoed by other activists who want to avoid any possibility that an ANC-government accord may end up broadening rule by a white urban elite to a multiracial urban elite - and still exclude the deprived majority.
"Unless we have a clearly mapped out program of action we could end up in a situation where people have the vote but continue to live in poverty," says Jay Naidoo, general secretary of Cosatu, the black trade-union federation. Most of the players in the new initiative are leaders from UDF, Cosatu, and regional civic bodies.
If the lessons of Eastern Europe are absorbed by anti-apartheid groups it could ensure that a postapartheid South Africa develops an accountable democracy that would be rare in Africa. The anti-apartheid alliance has drawn two major lessons from events in Eastern Europe:
The first is that an over-concentration of power in the ruling party and a lack of checks and balances is in direct conflict with democracy. The second is that the protests that overthrew unpopular regimes were swift and radical because the social movements were not tools of the ruling party. These insights have sparked a debate about building an independent social movement and led, more specifically, to a reassessment of the Communist Party's policies.
"Communist parties in Eastern Europe failed to develop democratically-based organizations - like trade unions, community organizations, youth groups, and the like," says Ronnie Kasrils, head of the ANC underground and an executive member of the South African Communist Party. "This was one of the key factors that enabled the abuse of socialism and the overriding of society by a clique of people," he continues.
"There was no counter-balance, and democracy did not develop," Kasrils notes. According to him, the best insurance against repetition here, is the creation of independent trade unions and grass-roots civic associations.
Other activists have a slightly different motive for preferring civic associations: They are disillusioned with the ANC's style, its failure to consult its rank and file, and its apparent inability to win material benefits for deprived communities.
But some analysts feel that it is still too early to develop independent organs. "I think there are severe structural limitations on the formation of truly independent civics and trade unions as long as apartheid remains," says Khehla Shubane, a researcher at the independent Centre for Policy Studies. "They still define themselves in antagonistic terms in relation to the government and even big business."
The ANC supports the formation of community groups to address problems at the grass-roots level and promote unity. "At this stage the formation of civics will strengthen the ANC," an ANC official says. But, he adds, "What happens when the ANC is in government is another matter."