By Siyabonga Hadebe

In 2017, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán declared billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundation (OSF) persona non grata, which effectively barred them from entering the country ever again. Also, in 2015 Russia outlawed “undesirable” foreign or international organisations that allegedly undermined Russia’s security, defence or constitutional order. Besides Russia and Hungary, the OSF is illegal in China and Singapore and is on a government “watch list” in India. 

Hungary is located at the far-eastern frontier of the European Union together with Poland and Belarus (a non-EU member). Due to their location, Hungary and its neighbours are in a difficult position to enact stricter migration policies to cushion the supranational state from the former east bloc countries, the Middle East, Asia and beyond. Hungary’s actions were widely criticised because Orbán had tempered with the sanctified rules of global liberalism: to ban a civil society group from operating freely in his country. Nevertheless, harsh responses by several governments to the OSF activities bring to light the role of civil society and democratic participation. 

The concepts of ‘civil society’ and ‘democratic participation’ are often used interchangeably and are sometimes treated to mean the same thing. However, in a world order dominated by the West and its epistemologies, terminologies carry fluid meanings depending on the situation or political goals that must be achieved. In many instances, the power of civil society organisations is geared towards influencing policy. 

Civil society groups champion the collapse of South Africa through the just transition diatribe, destined to separate the elite and all sundry.Backed by foreign governments and organisations, these groups do not care who gets left out in their push to save the world from carbon fumes purportedly. However, millions of people who got electricity for the first time after 1994 stand to lose out in the infamous decarbonisation contest.

Understanding and determining where civil society is located in political theory is essential. Political ideology, European political philosophy to be precise, frames the existence of civil society organisations that serve many purposes within and without countries. These entities have emerged as a significant force in the past 30 years. This period coincides with the rise of liberalism as the main idea for shaping the state, what it is about and what it can or cannot do.

The liberal understanding of civil society is explained in the work of the English philosopher John Locke, who was a classic liberal. In The Second Treatise of Government, Locke’s idea of civil society orbits around the state of nature’s principal flaw, i.e., lack of impartial judges. He argued that only civil society could correct this by providing equal and independent people with legitimate political authority.

Put in more straightforward language, civil society was important in fixing the weaknesses of the state of nature. The meaning of civil society, therefore, held that people come together under a social contract and act jointly or use their judgment to establish authority (government), elect representatives and formulate laws. However, the modern definition is slightly different to what Locke envisaged. It now places significant emphasis on the separation of state and society while eroding the notion of citizen participation in the running of the state simultaneously. 

Nonetheless, the work of eminent social anthropologist Ernest Gellner on civil society provides a more precise exposition of the liberal position. For Gellner, civil society is “a cluster of non-governmental organisations standing against the state to prevent its domination has pitfalls…” These organisations are supposedly strong enough to keep the state in check so it does not abuse its power. In addition, unlike a family, their character is such that they are entered and left freely rather than imposed by birth or station.

At this juncture, many people perhaps wonder why countries such as Hungary, Russia, China and Singapore would have a problem with civil society movements if, indeed, their purpose is about these “noble” ideas of democracy, economic equity, digital rights and justice. The answer lies in a deeper understanding of the ‘politics’ of civil society. Western countries uncompromisingly promote and prescribe the liberal regime based on the ‘rule of law’, parliamentary democracy, human rights, open borders, climate change, free markets, etc. Civil society acts as a front and or conduit for neocolonialism and imperialism. 

The West’s unwavering stance is complemented by carrot-and-stick diplomacy. For a country to qualify for the generalised System of Preferences (GSP), such as the AGOA (in the case of the US) and the GSP Plus (EU), which is a preferential tariff system which provides tariff reduction on various products, it must meet these requirements. Failure to comply means that the misbehaving country will lose the privilege of favourable tariffs and be punished through sanctions, regime change or outright military action. The US already proposes to review its relations with South Africa for its foreign policy choices.

Just energy transition represents a form of violence against South Africa. Eskom leadership and its shareholder display anxiety as they succumb to the pressure. Last week, chairmanMpho Makwana, who also serves as the green bank chair, miraculously called for people to instal solar instead of using the Eskom service. The comments suddenly depart from South Africa’stransformative constitutionalism, which prioritises socio-economic rights as essential to creating a fair and just society. As the engineered blackouts worsen, the poor are asked to appreciate life in darkness. 

External pressure compels countries such as South Africa to drop coal as the primary resource for energy generation. For example, Western governments concluded a USD8.5 billion deal with South Africa to fast-track ‘just transition’. Renewable energies are presented as a panacea to energy shortages in South Africa. Former Eskom CEO Andre De Ruyter once said electricity is too cheap in South Africa. It was not known what measurement barometer did he use. Clearly, affordability by the majority of South Africans was not taken into consideration. Even the tax rebates announced by finance minister Enoch Godongwana are not meant to benefit ordinary South Africans.

Although South Africa struggles with many socio-economic challenges such as poverty, crime, unemployment, violence, etc., these are nonetheless relegated to the bottom in favour of issues that serve external interests and undermine sovereign interests. Climate change fundamentalism poses a greater risk to South Africa’s future. The electricity supply is estimated to be 8000 megawatts short between today and the winter peak season in July, and this is a precursor for stage eight of loadshedding. Nobody cares how the gripping blackouts will impact the downtrodden, mainly in black-dominated areas.

As things stand, more than 70% of the South African population cannot keep up with the rapidly rising cost of living. They cannot afford to buy food and other basics. Poverty and unemployment are rampantly high, meaning there is little or no money for high-end needs like cars and other toys.Makwana and his friends in civil society groups donot seem to appreciate that millions have no money to buy solar equipment in their houses.

Siya yi banga le economy!

Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, political and global matters based in Geneva. The views expressed here are his own.