Understanding the Differences Between Civil Society and Civil Society Organisations

Within the South African context there seems to be a lot of confusion about who civil society is and what it means. The term is often used loosely, which just deepens the confusion. 

In my opinion though, all of us are civil society. There is a view that business people and politicians are not civil society, but they are. None of us are defined by our work and so within our personal capacity, we all make up the society of South Africa. 

Where civil society is organised though, it becomes a civil society organisation (CSO). Despite the terms ‘civil society’ and ‘CSOs’ often being used synonymously, there is a fundamental difference between the two, which many of us fail to understand. CSOs are defined as organised civil society and can come in many forms, some informal and some as formal entities such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), CBOs, faith-based organisations (FBOs), among many others. This is when a group of individuals come together for a common purpose, as in to fulfil a particular mandate driven by need.

CSOs have a constituency, as they have a clientele/beneficiaries whom they serve and ideally should represent that clientele. As such, it is very disturbing to see how many purport to be representing the views of civil society when in fact civil society has no idea what their mandate is. This is because no matter how well-intended the effort is, if people do not know or understand the mandate being served when ‘civil society’ is represented – then we in the sector are guilty of what we often accuse government of doing – imposing plans on people rather than facilitating a space in which people can make their own informed decisions.

A member of civil society represents their own views. It is very presumptuous of anyone to claim to represent the view of another as we often see. This does nothing but delegitimise the work done by CSOs and should be guarded against. Purporting to represent the view of all South Africans when failing to give people an understanding of what it is being referred to is very demeaning and can be dangerous as it further strips away the voice and dignity that represent civil society. But I have not the faintest clue what they are harping on and on about and yet they claim to be representing my views.

Many are sceptical of the work being done by CSOs, believing the sector to be self-serving and even at times, perpetuating the cycle of social exclusion under the guise of ‘making a difference’. This is a direct result of not differentiating between representing ‘civil society’ and a CSO representing a particular constituency of civil society. By virtue of seeking accountability from government and business, CSOs should hold themselves to the highest standards and this includes ensuring that no error is made about who and what CSOs represent.

Koketso Moeti is part of the Activate! Change Drivers network. To get in touch with her e-mail kmoeti@gmail.com alternatively, refer to http://about.me/koketsomoeti 

This article was first published by NGO Pulse.

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