Can Government Simply Deregister Outspoken NPOs?

democracy CSOs tolerance politics
Thursday, 9 April, 2015 - 10:41

The ANC is urged to invest in political education to empower its members to understand the role that CSOs play in strengthening our democratic South Africa 

The abuse of nonprofits that are, in essence, just doing their job, is on the increase. There appears to be a distinct lack of political education about our Constitution within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, there also appears to be disturbing and ongoing threats to independent organisations who speak out against the ANC.

Following the ‘Fire Benny’ campaign run by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in the Free State - where it called for the dismissal of the province’s Health MEC, Benny Malakoane - the ANC Youth League, the Women’s League and others in the Free State called for the de-registration of the TAC, claiming it was being used ‘as a political party instead of a nonprofit organisation.’

And there also appear to be disturbing and ongoing threats to independent organisations who speak out against the ANC. Section 18 of the Constitution protects our freedom of association. This is the basis of a civil society, where people come together to achieve certain ends that are in their own or society’s interest. This is about our rights and freedoms, our capacity as citizens to act independently. Most importantly, it is about checks and balances on government.

Citizens have the right to question government decisions and government action, and they can do this through organising within the civil society space. The abuse of these organisations that are, in essence, doing their job, appears to be on the increase. The ANC Youth League in the Free State called the TAC ‘that thing’, which is reminiscent of Julius Malema calling a BBC journalist a ‘bastard’ and ‘bloody agent’. Tolerance by the ruling party for this sort of behaviour is a slide on a slippery slope, as we have learnt. The kind of behaviour demonstrated by the Youth League at Polokwane when they bared their buttocks to the then-President Thabo Mbeki is becoming evident in Parliament. And yet, the ANC does not appear to have learned to control this tendency within its own ranks. Is it fine for the ruling party to carry on like this but not for anyone else? It is hardly surprising that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) behaves like it does in Parliament – the tone is already set and even encouraged within the ANC when it comes to anyone who might question its actions.

The fact of the matter is that registered organisations in South Africa simply cannot be deregistered. By law, they are not allowed to support a political party, even indirectly, so it would be interesting to see which of the myriad registered nonprofits are actually already breaking the law when they campaign for the ANC and support it in various ways.

Deregistration can only take place if an organisation is not compliant with its obligations to the Non-Profit Organisations Directorate in the Department of Social Development. This compliance entails the submission of annual reports, including financial statements, and information relating to changes in board members. If the TAC is compliant, it cannot simply be deregistered because a political party finds its activities and views unacceptable. Further, Clause 3 of the NonProfit Organisations Act of 1997 states that: Within the limits prescribed by law, every organ of state must determine and coordinate the implementation of its policies and measures in a manner designed to promote, support and enhance the capacity of nonprofit organisations to perform their functions.”

So the big question is, is this happening? And if so, where is it happening in government? According to the law, it should be happening within the Presidency as well as the smallest local council. The TAC is doing its job. Raising its concerns about the lack of health services in the Free State is its business, and the MEC and the provincial health department should be engaging with the TAC on the issues it raises. If our government cannot be bothered to implement its own laws and comply with its requirements, then we are in trouble. Even worse, when our ruling party’s structures do not know the law or our Constitution, we are in even bigger trouble.

It really is time the ANC reined in its own structures and undertook some serious political education among its members around the rights of citizens in civil society to express their views.

- Shelagh Gastrow is executive director at Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement. This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick website

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