Will civil society take Ramphele back?

Dr Mamphela Ramphele's assumption that she will be accepted into civil society, where she can continue her project of 'active citizenship' without having to be directly accountable to a real live constituency, speaks volumes. The good doctor is not wrong in this regard. Sadly, many civil society groups will accept her because the sector is not yet robust enough, not yet racially secure enough to tell prominent blacks (and whites) where to get off when they mess up.

When Ramphele announced that she was quitting politics to go 'back' to civil society she said her motivation was a desire to "return to working alongside my fellow citizens in civil society to pursue the dream of transforming ours into a more just and prosperous society".

While her reputation is certainly tarnished by the strange leadership choices she made in her brief (but now dead) political career and by her disdain for consultation and constituency-building, Ramphele will have no difficulty finding a few think tanks and policy groups to work with. These organisations will ask Ramphele to join their boards and participate in their forums and dialogues; they will seek her counsel and support her travel overseas to talk about the state of democracy in South Africa.

While this is to be expected, I must admit to some disquiet about what it says about the world of elite NGOs in which she is likely to find succour. In many ways, Ramphele's acceptance in civil society will be less about a resounding endorsement of her leadership abilities than it will be about the credibility crisis that ails the sector as a whole.

There is a sense among some in power that like the judiciary, the media and the private sector, civil society remains largely untransformed. In democracies, civil society groups are often confrontational and oppositional in their tactics - this is how change happens. Yet in our racialised environment, an increasingly defensive ruling elite depicts civil society groups as 'white-run enterprises' that do not respect the capacity of black people to run the country and manage the economy.

When Education Minister Angie Motshekga attacked the feisty NGO Equal Education (run by a young black man by the way), alleging that it was essentially "a group of white adults organising black African children with half-truths", she was giving voice to the undercurrent of resentment and hostility that often characterises state-civil society relations.

On the one hand, this is the kind of over-the-top populism that we saw in the lead-up to the drafting of the Secrecy Bill, and it must be rejected with contempt. It is designed to distract the public from the important issues of water and sanitation services, gender inequality, education, health and corruption that civic groups raise.

Yet on the other hand, many of the influential and well-resourced organisations in the urban-based NGO sector have white directors and senior staff and their boards have a disproportionate number of white folks on them. In short, those who hold power in the NGO sector continue to be those who benefited from privileges of the apartheid era.

As such, black people like Ramphele, who speak critically about the ruling party, are highly sought after. The paradox, of course, is that they are so highly sought after that even when they fall from grace they remain on the scene, lending ever-diminishing credibility to the sector.

This is a difficult issue to address because the whites who run the NGO sector - especially the ones that ask the tough questions and cause the most state discomfort - have excellent social justice credentials. They are 'good whites,' which makes the politics of challenging them complex and emotionally fraught. We aren't talking here about unreconstructed racists who feel as though they are entitled to rule over 'bad blacks' forever. We are talking about people for whom social justice includes thinking deeply about race and privilege. Yet, as always with difficult conversations about race and transformation in our country, that isn't really the point.

Despite the ability of the sector to introspect, despite the goodness of the whites who populate it, the reality is that civil society groups must confront these questions of credibility and racial transformation within their leadership structures if they are to continue to play a robust role in our struggles for social justice. They also must confront questions of class and urban-bias with as much attention and rigour.

The idea is not to question the legitimacy of white people to lead and participate in vibrant and important social movements. The idea is to diversify the number and type of groups that are recognised and valued in our social sector. We must ensure that organisations in rural areas that work in deeply challenging contexts are not looked at simply as 'grass-roots' structures that aren't capable of influencing policy processes. We must insist that groups like the Rural Women's Movement are just as strategic and smart and boundary-pushing as urban-based, middle-class led organisations.

This will require re-defining what the sector does and how it seeks to change our society. Funders - who like to be able to support groups that can produce log-frames and can speak in the language of technical jargon - will need to be challenged to think more deeply about who and how they fund.

There is more than enough inequality to go around and there are many strong and powerful leaders. Changing the civil society landscape so that the voices of these leaders are respected and valued is crucial.

As Ramphele looks for a new NGO home, civil society groups must open up a more meaningful conversation about genuine transformation.

This column appeared on _ Daily Maverick._