Ultimately, the foundation of all democracies is the concept of popular sovereignty and the seminal idea that government should be subject to the will of the people.

The question is how the people should exercise this critically important right? How should they formulate their views and participate in the national debate that is so essential to any genuine democracy?

One of the main vehicles for such activity is, of course, the party political system. It is accordingly accepted that people in democracies should have the right to form and participate in political parties and alliances – and such parties play central roles in all democracies.

However, the concerns of society extend far wider than the part of the spectrum covered by political organisations. They extend to every nook and cranny in the body politic where people come together to promote a common interest. These common interests range from societies for cactus growers, to faith-based organisations and charities to enormous confederations of commerce and industry. Collectively, they constitute civil society – and they play an indispensable role in any democracy.

Why is civil society to central to the functioning of genuine democracies? I should like to adduce three reasons:

Firstly, the countless organisations composing civil society include the lowest common denominator and articulator of interest in society. In the final analysis, all politics centres on interest. Civil society organisations enable people to work together for the promotion of those interests that are of the greatest importance to them. Such interests can range from the local golf club to charitable groups supporting sufferers of AIDS, cancer or heart disease; from immigrant support groups to gay rights activists.

Secondly, civil society is a prime manifestation of the essence of any democracy which is public participation in the affairs of society. As Pericles, the Athenian statesman, put it 2 400 years ago

“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business: we say he has no business here at However, very few people have the time or ability to participate directly in the political process between national elections. Everyone can, however, be actively involved in the specific areas that are closest to their personal interests – whether it is the local amateur dramatic society; the nearby church, mosque, synagogue or temple; a non-governmental organisation dedicated to a special concern that they might have; or a service organisation like Rotary or Lions where people come together to help raise funds for worthy causes.

Thirdly, the organisations that comprise civil society are a crucial manifestation of, and requirement for, free societies. One of the central characteristics of totalitarianism is that all organs of society are subservient to the dominant ideology and the will of the state. In such societies there is no room for the countless voices emanating from civil society organisations. Only the heavy orthodoxy of the dominant ideology is tolerated – thus depriving society of the diverse and creative contributions that people and organisations can make to the public debate. This vibrant diversity and collective popular experience is the hallmark of all vigorous democracies.

Our experience in our own new democracy in South Africa has underscored the constructive role that civil society can play in national affairs.

Charitable organisations – play a major role in mobilising

voluntary funding and manpower for numerous public causes.

As Martin Luther King out it:
“At the heart of all that civilisation has meant and developed is ‘community’ – the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother.”

In assuming responsibility for their brothers and sisters civil society organisations supplement the efforts of the state and often make a disproportionate contribution to addressing social problems. For example, one grouping of non-governmental organisations with which my Foundation works, has more than 800 member organisations. Collectively, they raise more than US $ 150 million each year in support of the causes that they serve – thus saving the tax-payer an enormous amount. They often deliver services more effectively and at a lower cost than state organisations.

In South Africa we have numerous organisations espousing a wide variety of public issues and causes. One of them is the Treatment Action Campaign that has been lobbying for more effective treatment for AIDS sufferers. They have been a major factor in pressuring the government to implement much more effective AIDS treatment based on the large scale provision of anti-retroviral drugs.

Recently, when the Government introduced draft legislation aimed at combating child pornography, the South African National Editors Forum complained that some of the measures included in the draft legislation might have impacted negatively on important aspects of press freedom. As a result of their stand the government has significantly improved the draft legislation.

Our Constitution specifically requires Parliament to facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the National Assembly and its committees. It also requires Parliament to conduct its business in an open manner and to ensure that the public has access to all its deliberations. This means in practice that civil society organisations usually have an opportunity to comment on – and influence – any draft legislation or other decision of Parliament. It is a right that our civil society uses to good effect.

Civil society can also act as a watchdog to ensure that Government abides by the law. The F W de Klerk Foundation has established a Centre for Constitutional Rights that promotes the values and rights in our Constitution. It monitors all legislation emanating from Parliament to ensure that it complies with the requirements of the Constitution and participates in the national debate on constitutional issues. It also helps citizens and organisations to claim their constitutional rights by providing them with legal advice – and even by taking cases to the Constitutional Court.

Thus, civil society – in South Africa – and in democracies throughout the world plays a central role in the democratic process. It articulates the public interest; it is the embodiment of public participation in the affairs of society; and it helps to promote and preserve the freedoms that are essential for the functioning of democracy. It is accordingly the duty of all genuine democracies to nurture this role and to create the circumstances in which a free and vibrant civil society can thrive.