“We are seen as the bad guys”: The troubled relationship between state and civil society actors

*Guest contribution

By Thoko Sipungu, MAP Human Settlements Researcher

On the 10th of August 2016, social accountability practitioners from the SADC region convened in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, for a three day Lessons Sharing and Learning Event organized by PSAM for its partners.

This was an event where Social Accountability practitioners shared their experiences, learnt from other colleagues, and chartered a way forward.

We spoke about a great deal of things over the 3 days and shared our challenges with each other. On the third day of the workshop, one of the participants brought up the thorny issue of the relationship between civil society actors – particularly those doing social accountability work – and state actors.

This was discussed briefly, but a number of lessons can be taken and shared from that brief moment of absolute despair and frustration felt by those attending, about the state of the said relationship or lack thereof. There was consensus from everyone in the room that the relationship is in tatters. Antagonistic.

We are seen as the ‘bad guys’.

We all agreed on this one. There were nods, sighs, yeses and smiles all round. There was perfect consensus! A shared understanding of the troubled relationship between state actors and civil society practitioners.

One colleague bemoaned the toxic nature of this relationship. Another laughed at the use of the word ‘relationship’; “it doesn’t exist” he went on to claim. We could all relate, and we all knew that we have all been called names in the past. In the case of South Africa, government officials have recently added “third force” to the arsenal of names.

In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has consistently called our colleagues the “puppets of the West”. The undertone is always that we are paid by someone (from the Wild Wild West) to destabilize the state. We are always dealt with suspicion. We are seen as enemies of the state. Enemies of democracy.

Ultimately, just enemies. It’s a them versus us perspective. The severity of the ‘troubledness’ of this relationship seems to vary according to country context and the levels of democracy in such contexts. In some contexts, it is bad, and then in others it is “bad bad”. For instance, civil society colleagues from Zimbabwe complain about not having access to some of the documents they need for their work.

How does one carry out their social accountability monitoring duties, which includes budget analysis and performance monitoring, when you are refused access to government budgets and strategic plans?

We complained about government officials not taking our work seriously, about them disregarding our inputs, and giving us the cold shoulder. Colleagues from Tanzania and Mozambique also shared some of their troubled experiences with government officials.

For me this was a bitter-sweet moment. There is some perverted pleasure or relief that comes from knowing that other people are navigating the same troubled waters. “Well, at least I’m not the only one”, you console yourself and soldier on. In the same breath, this was bitter because just one-day prior a colleague from Tanzania had been sent back home by Zimbabwean immigration officials for a reason I still don’t quite understand.

I suspect they thought she was a “puppet of the West” and held great powers to single-handedly mobilise the whole Zimbabwean population for a coup d’état.

Listening to everyone share stories of how deep they are in the troubled waters, I remembered the time I presented my 2016 Budget Analysis at a workshop organized by the Department of Human Settlements. I had been invited by the Department as an interested stakeholder to present under the theme “Funding Human Settlements”. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to present the Budget Analysis I had recently completed.

The Department had been so hospitable and welcoming leading up to the workshop. I had been sent lovely email reminders and confirmations, and offered delicious confectioneries upon arrival. I went ahead and presented my Budget Analysis. In hindsight, I don’t think the officials knew what kind of information I was going to present because, although the usual practice is that after presentations at such workshops the Department keeps the presentations and circulates them to all other stakeholders who were present, the following day when the email with the presentations was circulated – my presentation was not attached. Completely obliterated!

That’s when I realised that the relationship between myself and the Department is conditional. The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, perfectly captures the distinction between conditional and unconditional hospitalities and relationships. The relationships we have with state actors comes with conditions, limits, and boundaries, the extent and severity of which differs according to country context.

There are things ‘they’ are completely fine with us knowing, and then there are things we should not know, not speak, not publish. For now, my conditioned relationship with the Department of Human Settlements is much better than that of my counterparts in some other African contexts. I know the Department will reach out to me every now and then.

For instance, a few days ago two officials from the Department of Human Settlements drove all the way to my office to seek input on a policy that is currently under review.

For now, I will take this ‘relationship’. We would all like a relationship that comes with no conditions and limits. No antagonism. We yearn for a relationship built in perfect symbiosis because we all need each other to ensure effective and efficient service delivery for citizens.

*This article first appeared in the PSAM August 2016 Newsletter.

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