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A bittersweet farewell to the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa)

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa played a pivotal role in that country’s transition away from apartheid rule. Two “white liberals” – Alex Borraine and the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert – left their jobs as members of parliament in order to meet with exiled members of the African National Congress in various remote locations. Out of the spotlight of the media and everyday politics, they helped negotiate a series of ice-breakers between the white and black elites, initiating a set of discussions that would pave the way for Mandela’s release and the writing of a new constitution. Of course, many factors made such meetings possible, including the challenges and protests of so many ordinary citizens in South Africa and abroad, but few serious observers of that country’s history would discount the importance of these early, secretive, get-to-know-you retreats.

Following Mandela’s release, the unbanning of the ANC, and the first multi-racial elections, it was not exactly clear what role various anti-apartheid organizations might play given that their core mandates no longer seemed relevant. In the case of Idasa, it transformed itself in name (but not acronym) to be an organization that would help South African citizens build this new democracy with various information, awareness and monitoring functions. (Steven Friedman correctly highlights that the simple bridge-building work of the original Idasa is still needed today.)

Back in the early 1990s, I was lucky to meet a few of Idasa’s key program managers, including Robert Mattes, who would run the Public Opinion Service; and Warren Krafchik, who directed the Budget Information Service. These projects conducted pioneering research on citizen attitudes and the emerging budget process, and they communicated their findings to scholars, policy-makers, and ordinary citizens. A few years later, while I was a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, these folks kindly allowed me to serve as an intern in their units, provided me a desk and an internet connection, and most importantly, allowed me to be a part of the organization.

idasa cape town

My year was personally and professionally inspiring. The period 1997-8 was surely the height of the post-apartheid “honeymoon,” the year following the Springbok win of the Rugby World Cup (now of Invictus fame). Idasa had purchased a marvelous old building at 6 Spin Street, right around the corner from the nation’s parliament, the national library, and several key offices of the bureaucracy, including the South African Revenue Service. Each day the building’s corridors came alive with art and performances, as leading politicians and scholars from around the country and around the world stopped in for visits. At morning tea time, as I developed a taste for Rooibos tea many years before it would become an American rage, I learned so much from my colleagues about their respective cultures, and from their work in trying to consolidate democratic practice in this divided society.

In the years to follow, Idasa continued to generate a great deal of research, including in the area I began to study – HIV/AIDS policy – and the organization would extend the scope of its activities to the entire Southern African region. More recently, I discovered that the Cape Town office closed, and all of the operations were consolidated in the Pretoria office. The organization’s stature was clearly in decline. It was certainly not an activist organization, barely a monitoring organization, perhaps a research outfit, but not quite a think-tank. If donor support fell away, perhaps it was because the organization’s mission had simply become too ambiguous. In late March, the director announced that Idasa would close due to lack of financial support.

Idasa shopOn the one hand, I am so sad to hear of this great institution’s fall. I retain just a speck of hope that some angel donor will come in to resuscitate this once giant. On the other hand, perhaps I should just pay tribute to its incredibly important legacy, which gave hope to the most brilliant political story that I’ve observed in my lifetime – one which continues to animate my own life and career to this day. In just a few weeks, one of my old Idasa friends, Albert Van Zyl, who now works for our old boss, Warren Krafchik, will present the work of the International Budget Project to my class of Princeton undergraduates learning about the Politics of Development.

I am very proud to have been associated with this distinguished organization. Despite its current lack of a Wikipedia entry(!), I hope its role in contemporary South African history will be sufficiently recognized.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “A bittersweet farewell to the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa)

  1. Perhaps you should be the one to write its proper history!

    Posted by Douglas Freedman | April 9, 2013, 9:43 am
  2. Very Significant information. Thanks for Posting. God bless!

    Posted by Jonathan Generalao | April 16, 2013, 11:46 am
  3. This was also very helpful to me; teaching Long Walk to Freedom this week in a mid-career public policy course and want to make sure my students don’t glorify Mandela and overlook the important role of political institutions in organizing for change. Perhaps it is your own leadership role to tell the proper history.

    Posted by Jodi Sandfort | March 29, 2015, 9:58 am

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