Check against delivery.
It is an honour for me to speak in front of your annual general assembly. I have worked most of my life as a civil servant, serving either a government or inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations or the European Union, and hence I have always been "on the other side" of what is sometimes a complicated relationship between civil society and governments. But throughout my career, I have always taken care to listen to civil society, and therefore I am happy that today you are willing to listen to me.
Do I need to point out that within the European Union, we attach great importance to dynamic civil society organizations, which we consider as an essential element of modern democracy ? Even the Cotonou Agreement, for decades the basis of the EU's relationship with African, Caribbean and Pacific Countries, explicitly mentions and recognises non-state actors and decentralized authorities, and instructs us to support and involve them in the implementation of development programmes.
I am therefore pleased to see that Lesotho has a vibrant and very active civil society, which is respected and regularly consulted by the government. The presence here of H.E. Prime Minister Thabane and of several Cabinet Ministers is testimony to the strong relationship you have with the government.
I particularly commend you for the role you all have played in the reforms dialogue, right from the beginning of the first conference in October 2017 and through the district consultations until the final phase, when you were instrumental in preparing the proposals for the second plenary. It is fair to say that without you, the reforms process would not be where it is today. I trust that you will continue to play a very active role in the forthcoming implementation of the reforms, which will have its own challenges.
Before we get there, let me share with you a few observations on how I see the role of civil society in a governance system. Some people think of the balance of power between the state and civil society as a zero-sum game: the stronger the state, the weaker civil society, or vice versa. In my view, this is a dangerous misunderstanding. It is true that some authoritarian states restrict, stifle or even outlaw civil society; in my previous assignment, in Eritrea, non-governmental organizations are practically non-existent because the ruling party pretends to "represent the people of Eritrea". In this case, an authoritarian government limits, or even annihilates, the space for civil society. But when I say a strong state, I don't necessarily mean a strong leader, or an authoritarian government, but strong institutions. The apparent strength of authoritarianism is usually superficial and often disguises deep internal tensions, which can explode into violence when the iron grip loosens. Many an authoritarian leader has been overthrown when the people had enough of the repression.
In the long term, a state is strong, stable and sustainable if it has functioning institutions that provide a framework for the peaceful and fair resolution of conflicts in society; institutions that temper personal and party interests and promote the common good. In such a state there is not only space for civil society, there is a need for it. Civil society is part of the checks and balances necessary for a democratic society, because civil society offers a voice to people who otherwise have limited access to the mass media, or to political institutions.
A strong state and a strong civil society, that's how it should be. If the state is weak, there is a risk that civil society gets drawn into political quarrels and controversies, and that its role gets subverted. I experienced this most dramatically in eastern Congo in the last two decades, where civil society leaders often aligned with political parties and became their campaign multipliers; where some civil society organizations even transformed into rebel movements. The result was a deeply politicized and even militarized civil society, the consequences of which can still be felt today.
Hence my advice to you is to stay true to your mandate, which is not to take sides in any political conflict, but to objectively voice the interests of the people you represent, and to pursue the goals that you have set yourselves in terms of advocacy or service delivery, or both.
I am not saying that this role is not political, but I make a difference between "political" and "politicized". Educating society about the rights of women, rehabilitating soldiers who have unjustly suffered legal prosecution and mistreatment, promoting awareness about environmental challenges, denouncing inequalities and abuse of office, these are eminently political activities. But you should be careful when you pursue these activities, and in particular when you criticize injustice or denounce corruption, that you do it in an even-handed way. Political parties may try to instrumentalise you, to draw you on their side or accuse you of bias; some politicians may even target you personally or undermine your reputation. As long as you aware of this, as long as you act in an objective and even-handed manner, and as long as you mutually support each other, you will be able to handle such challenges.
As we are on the eve of the implementation of the national reforms, and since civil society is part of the National Reforms Authority, you have to be particularly attentive to the upcoming political dynamics. Your role as an objective guardian of the reforms decisions, and as a driving force for their implementation, will be essential. We can already predict that not all parties will be happy with some decisions of the second plenary; perhaps some will actively try to delay or undermine their implementation. You will have to denounce such acts and attitudes, while avoiding to be drawn into the political competition that will inevitably arise in the months to come. This requires careful judgement and a cool-headed approach to the process ahead.
One of the main challenges in the very near future will be to identify a few key decisions that can be swiftly implemented and that make a difference, so as to show the Basotho people that the reform process is moving ahead. We are approaching the Christmas period, which is a time of reflection, a time to celebrate with family and friends, a time of reconciliation. But the New Year is around the corner and it should be a year during which many of the reforms shall be implemented. And this important work should not get bogged down by procedural controversies or political stalemates. Perhaps the biggest challenge to the implementation of the reforms will be inertia or paralysis of the NRA due to internal disagreements, and if this happens, you, civil society, will have a key role to help overcome any stalemate. And I assure you of the unwavering support of the international community, not only the EU but also your other international partners, in particular SADC and the UN, who have been following the reforms very closely.
With these remarks, I wish you a successful annual conference, a peaceful and pleasant festive season, and a constructive and blessed New Year !
Khotso, Pula, Nala !