‘Tis the Season of Promises

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - 10:41
Civil society organisations (CSOs) play a key role in the provision of basic services and in addressing socio-economic challenges in communities. However, there is no acknowledgement of this role or relief for CSOs, as evident in this year’s budget. Despite lack of adequate financial support from government, CSOs continue to invest their resources in providing services were government is failing to. Government should seriously rethink its performance and approach to service delivery, while at the same time giving recognition and support for the critical role that CSOs are playing in this regard

With the State of the Nation Address by President Zuma and the Budget behind us, and the plethora of state of the province addresses for good measure, South Africa can truly said to be in its Season of Promises.

There are promises of better government from the President, a fight against corruption and a pledge to launch the equivalent of a moral rearmament programme.  There is a focus on greater spending in the budget on social grants, health and education, not forgetting the provinces that conscientiously walk in national government’s fiscal shadow. But what does this all mean, specifically for the thousands of NGOs that continue to work tirelessly on the ground?

It is widely accepted that civil society in South Africa provides a substantial number of services that government is unable to fulfil. Thus, while increased spending on socio-economic and educational matters is welcome, the reality remains that countless organisations in civil society are fulfilling socio-economic imperatives because the government is simply unable or unwilling to do so.

As has been noted by some NPOs already, there was no acknowledgement of this role, or relief for CSOs in the budget. To be sure, there are instances in which government gives financial support to NPOs, such as a R12 million grant to 44 NPOs operating in the health care sector in the Northern Cape. This sounds good, but it equates to an average of just less than R273 000 per annum per organisation. That is small beer in the budget of most NPOs and will not go a long way towards enabling those organisations to provide the type of critical service they doubtlessly give.

It is a tragedy that administrations at national and provincial level seemingly live with the delusion that they are meeting the critical needs of people on the ground on the one hand and, on the other, fail to recognise that civil society is providing public services that ordinarily (and sometimes even statutorily, such as in the case of education and health) will be the responsibility of government.

The question is, therefore, why donors should be subsidising the state in the provision of basic services? People are already paying tax for these services and there is, frankly, not such a huge shortage of money. It seems to go astray between the taxpayer and the beneficiary.   Besides corruption, there seems to be a huge amount of wastage or the money is simply not used. The government is meant to be the caretaker of these funds but there appears to be little care in ensuring that they are used properly or used at all. The number of departments that did not achieve clear audits, including the Presidency, shows how little concern there is for tracking money, providing paper trails and exposing corruption. 

Donor funding is currently focusing on the basic provision of services – in reality the responsibility of the state. This has skewed the view of civil society from one that is vibrant and innovative, producing new ideas, new research, defending human rights, making a contribution to policy, advocating for systemic change and social justice, whether relating to the environment or gender as examples. Instead, philanthropy remains caught in the trap of service delivery, where organisations are seen as the sum total of their projects with indicators, outputs and measurable outcomes such as plates of food provided, rather than as living, thinking, advocating and dynamic structures. 

Notwithstanding the fact that the Seasons of Promises have failed to live up to expectations, civil society has worked tirelessly, with many people doing so voluntarily, to address the failure of government service. That civil society organisations are able to make such a major contribution to our country is due to the support of local and foreign donors and philanthropists, and the hard work of ordinary people on the ground. Yet government continues to marginalise our non-profits from the mainstream. Whilst the unions and business are included in Nedlac, where is civil society?  When the President travels abroad with his entourage, where is civil society?   Is this the forgotten sector that carries the can or is this deliberate marginalisation with civil society viewed as a potential threat?  Where will organised criticism of the government come from in future – beyond the realms of opposition parties in what is becoming the stifled institution of parliament.

Perhaps there is a recognition that the organisations really working on the ground may have something to say when there is no change in people’s circumstances despite the Season of Promises.

This current Season of Promises has also introduced a new element for this time of the year - the suggestion by the president of the need for a new moral code for South Africa.

Civil society, in both the apartheid years and in the post-1994 period has never departed from its commitment to the values and norms of a moral society. This is perhaps most obviously illustrated in the work of the faith-based organisations that form part of it, but has also been present in the social, health, educational, human rights, job creation and economic and empowerment programmes run by various civil society organisations. It is appropriate therefore to point out that, in spite of the falls from grace that occur in any organisation because of human behaviour, it is not civil society that stands accused of wide-spread fraud, corruption and graft. Civil society has stood firm on these issues: it is not they who have confused the culturally acceptable practice of polygamy with the damaging and disrespectful practice of promiscuity. It is not civil society that has forgotten that this is the 21st century and that over-population has contributed to global warming – that fathering more than 20 children is a disservice to everyone in this world.

Some form of moral renewal is doubtless necessary in a country in which public figures berate one another with scant regard for human and race relations, and in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer at an alarming rate. It is critical that civil society participate in this quest and that, of all sectors, they have a leading role as they are the organisations and individuals who keep the institutions of care, education and other social entities operating at the grassroots level.

- Shelagh Gastrow is the Executive Director of Inyathelo – The South African Institute for Advancement. This article was first published on Daily News website and it is republished here with the permission of Inyathelo – The South African Institute for Advancement.

Author(s): 
Shelagh Gastrow