We celebrated 15 years of democracy at the election polls in April, giving rise to an opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, and where we are going. Like the often turbulent years of human adolescence, our country has experienced dynamic change and development since the first democratic elections in 1994. A key component of our democracy, the non-government organisation (NGO) sector, which delivers thousands of vital services to the broader community, has also experienced transition in the past decade and a half.
The South African NGO landscape has changed significantly since the early 1990s. The end of apartheid required NGOs to redefine their role – from that of an activist movement in opposition to the state, to a roleplayer in development, working in collaboration with the newly-elected government. Because of NGOs’ grassroots reach into communities, the ANC saw them as valuable partners in facilitating socio-economic development and service delivery.
This period of radical transformation opened up new opportunities for NGOs to participate in the process of nation building and reconstruction, but it was also a period of uncertainty, as the sector experienced a crisis of purpose and identity. With a legitimate government in place, the incentive for international donors to fund South African non-profit organisations was not as compelling, and NGOs were forced to seek government aid and support from businesses and individual donors. As a result, many NGOs closed down, and a number of experienced individuals in the sector took up jobs in government and the private sector.
While collaborating with government can be positive in many ways, the nature of this new relationship and NGOs’ reliance on funding also had a negative effect, impacting on the independence of the sector and their ability to engage critically with government and businesses and hold them to account. Some researchers, such as Chandre Gould of the Institute of Security Studies, have suggested that while NGOs acted as vigilant watchdogs in the past, they have become acquiescent lapdogs.
The re-emergence of an activist civil society
But the sector has not remained static in the post-apartheid period; it has continued to evolve. Since the early 2000s, a new generation of NGOs, such as the Treatment Action Campaign, the Landless People’s Movement and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, have begun to challenge the lapdog stereotype.
Neil Eccles and Sunette Pienaar of the Unisa Centre for Corporate Citizenship emphasise that these non-profit organisations, also called social movements, have led to a re-emergence of the activist element within the NGO sector. In particular, the success of the Treatment Action Campaign and the victory of social protest in Khutsong (which prevented the township from being transferred from Gauteng to the North-West Province) laid the groundwork for the re-emergence of small grassroots community-based organisations that are focused on service delivery. It has shown that it is still possible for NGOs to challenge and influence government policy.
In the post-apartheid period, the NGO sector has tended to frame its demands in a rights-based approach, and has focused on service delivery. Organisations have sprung up in response to particular social issues, such as crime and security, HIV/AIDS and the abuse of women. The failure of government to effectively tackle service delivery and pressing social issues has led to the rise of this new activist element within the NGO sector.
These NGOs, or social movements, have given citizens who remained marginalised and unheard in the post-apartheid period a voice – and in so doing they have provided an opportunity for real citizen participation and democracy in action. But these movements are still in their infancy, and will need to grow to ensure that an active and engaged citizenship is developed in South Africa.
While these social movements are holding government to account, the NGO sector as a whole is still struggling to build the organisational capacity necessary to report effectively and be accountable to their donors.
During the years of apartheid, donors provided funding to South African NGOs, but demanded little accountability. Nowadays, organisations increasingly need to be able ‘demonstrate the long term sustainability and impact of their initiatives’ in order to secure donor funding, as Dr Gerry Salole, former regional representative of the Ford Foundation, highlighted in an interview with SANGONeT. As part of the accountability process, NGOs must build the capacity of their governance boards so that they are able to monitor the performance of their organisations.
While this requires NGOs to become more formalised and structured, Dr Salole points out that they should not lose touch with their passion and vision for change – qualities that also attract donors. In other words, being accountable does not mean automatically losing their potential for activism.
Encouraging non-profits to build the skills and infrastructure that will enable them to account to their donors is one of the aims of GreaterGood SA’s South African Social Investment Exchange (SASIX). All SASIX-listed projects must be able to demonstrate their impact, levels of organisational sustainability and good governance. In this way, GreaterGood SA is working with NGOs to promote positive change in the local development landscape.
Annie Devenish is a researcher at GreaterGood SA. This article was first published in the June edition of GreaterGood News and is republished here with permission.