Everyone who is at all interested in the well-being of the South African non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector is aware that the past few years have been challenging. These difficulties are well documented and include gradual withdrawal of international funding, the effects of the global economic recession, leadership and skills flight into business and government - all this compounded by ineffective functioning of state-related institutions whose legislated responsibility is to enable the sector. Given these circumstances a number of restorative initiatives have emerged, spearheaded by intermediary or support organisations such as Greater Good, GivenGain, Inyathelo and CAF Southern Africa. For example, two ‘collaboration forums’ have been established, one in Cape Town and the other in Johannesburg, to investigate the actual situation regarding funding for NGOs, to provide support for organisations in meeting statutory registration and tax requirements, and to provide access to thought leaders whose advice can help strengthen struggling organisations. The above-mentioned organisations are also among those providing practical capacity building and management development programmes, undertaking policy research and advocating for a more conducive funding milieu, and for improvements in the regulatory environment governing the development sector.
Given this growing wave of sector solidarity it was therefore disappointing to read the article published recently on NGO Pulse, (issued by MACS media on behalf of the Orion Organisation and the Cape Town Society for the Blind). In the article, Lizelle van Wyk, chief executive of Cape Town Society for the Blind is quoted making a number of sweeping statements about South Africa’s NGO sector. These statements portray an undifferentiated and negative view of the sector, this without providing even one piece of substantiating evidence. It is unclear to me what the point of publishing such a potentially damaging set of assertions can be – and why the two originating organisations had to issue these via a private communications company. Given that CAF Southern Africa’s ultimate aim is to contribute towards the strength and legitimacy of the NGO sector we have decided to provide a more balanced view of the current situation.
The article in question opens with the statement that ‘Some 30 percent (36 000) of the country’s 122 000 registered NGOs had to close down in 2013 due to growing financial shortages, huge pressure on fundraising as well as non-compliance with legal requirements’. We would be interested to hear the source of these statistics, as to our knowledge, due to a number of factors including backlogs in the registration process, introduction of new technology and associated teething problems; together with factors within the sector itself such as misunderstandings of the registration process, gaps in annual reporting, etc, no one knows with absolute certainty the number of registered NGOs, let alone how many ‘had to close down’. However, during a public presentation made on 30 May 2014, the Director of the Department of Social Development’s (DSD) NPO Directorate himself stated that there were then 121 897 organisations registered. If the figures quoted in the article which I am countering were correct, there would have been only 86 000 organisations left on the register at this time.
Certainly a number of organisations have been forced to close or radically downsize, but to our knowledge there is no data on the quantum of this, and if there are please can MACS Media share the source? Ms van Wyk also castigates the 36 000 organisations for closing down. She says that these (alleged) closures are a ‘waste of government funds’, given that ‘… government subsidises NGOs to the tune of 31 billion annually’. The reality is not that ‘government subsidises NGOs’, but rather pays them, all too often at rates far below that paid to public sector employees, to provide critical services to poor and marginalised communities, services that in an effective administration government itself would be providing. A significant contributing factor to the closure or severe cutbacks in services by many NGOs is the ongoing poor functioning of government-related institutions such as the Lotteries, the National Development Agency and some of the DSD's offices.
I do not propose to interrogate the whole question of government funding to the sector in this article as this is a complex area that requires dedicated research. However, just one, very significant example will illustrate my point: in an article published in Business Day on 22 July 2014, Lisa Vetten, well-known gender activist and currently a research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), pointed out that the current DSD budget includes a large amount to be spent on a ‘victim empowerment programme’, including a ‘command centre’. This says Vetten is a very expensive and unnecessary duplication of services already provided by a NGO that is also funded, albeit at a much lower rate, by DSD.
The MACS Media-derived article also includes generalised statements on the ethics, credibility and management effectiveness of the NGO sector, asserting that organisations are corrupt, have ‘no vision’, and have ‘weak production’ and ‘quality control’. This catalogue of purported failings ends with recommendations for NGOs to be ‘more commercialised’ and become ‘more profitable’. Again these assertions are made in a completely undifferentiated way, so that a reader unfamiliar with the achievements of the sector would perceive that every NGO in South Africa is corrupt, ineffective and make no effort to develop alternative income streams.
This one-dimensional perspective is not only damaging but also incorrect. In the words of Wits university Vice Chancellor Professor Adam Habib: ‘An important characteristic of the contemporary era is not a consistency in message or practice within civil society organisations. Rather it is that democratisation and globalisation have facilitated the reassertion of the plural character of civil society and undermined the homogenous effects that the anti-apartheid struggle had enveloped the sector within.’ 1
Given the undoubted crisis in education and consequent skills shortage in South Africa, there are certainly many managerially inefficient or inexperienced organisations in the sector, (as indeed there are within the business and government sectors). However the contributions of the majority of organisations far outweigh the failings of the few. CAF Southern Africa’s key role is to link potential donors and volunteers with credible civil society organisations. We have over 500 excellent organisations on our database that have met our standards of due diligence. We know that there are several thousand other organisations countrywide making invaluable contributions - let us applaud the work of the strong while we intervene constructively when needed to improve the environment and strengthen the effectiveness of those organisations needing a helping hand.
- Colleen du Toit is the chief executive officer at CAF Southern Africa.
 Habib, Adam in Inyathelo Annual Report 2013 – 2014, p 16