In the past few weeks the role of NGOs in South Africa received much attention. Various events and initiatives focussed on the funding challenges facing the sector, the need for improved governance, the relationship with government, the involvement of civil society in deepening our democracy, and the broader role and relevance of the sector in relation to various challenges facing South Africa.
Key examples in this regard include "People’s Power, People’s Parliament: A Civil Society Conference on South Africa’s Legislatures" which was held from 13-15 August 2012 in Cape Town, the launch of the "Voluntary Code of Governance and Values for Nonprofits in South Africa", the release of a report on “Critical Perspectives on the Sustainability of the South African Civil Society Sector”, and the National NPO Summit that was hosted by the National Department of Social Development from 15-17 August 2012 in Johannesburg.
It is no secret that many NGOs are confronted with serious financial and capacity challenges. Many have already closed down or had to scale back their activities. At the same time, South Africa is faced with overwhelming development challenges – education, health, poverty, etc. Increasingly, government departments and agencies are incapable of responding to these challenges – lack of capacity and leadership, corruption, etc., resulting in slow or no service delivery, and an alarming increase in social unrest in many parts of the country.
Finding solutions to these challenges will require the unique contributions of all development stakeholders throughout the country, driven by a common vision as captured in the National Development Plan 2030.
However, what is of great concern is the lack of meaningful support by government and others for the work of NGOs, and the conflicting views of people in government about the role of NGOs in South Africa.
Given the size of the NGO sector, and the broad scope of NGOs’ services and activities, it is a common fact that NGOs more often than not are the ones that fill the “delivery gap” in our society. Where else can people turn to for assistance and support regarding basic social needs? But if NGOs continue to close their doors or serve less people because of funding constraints, what will be the long-term consequences for many South Africans? What will happen to abused women in Cape Town if Rape Crisis closes down or why are organisations such as Project Literacy not getting more support given the adult basic education challenges facing millions of adult South Africans? Furthermore, what will happen to advocacy work and keeping government accountable if NGOs such as Treatment Action Campaign, Section 27 or the Right2Know Campaign don’t secure enough external support for their work? Whose interest will it serve if any of these organisations disappear from the scene?
The bottom-line is – why are NGOs not receiving more support and recognition for the role they play in South Africa?
President Zuma made a number of very encouraging remarks about NGOs at the recent NPO Summit. Media headlines in this regard included “Zuma unhappy over lack of financial support for NGO's”, “President Zuma praises non-profit orgs for sterling work”, and “NPOs remain indispensable partner for government: Zuma”. He even stated that the “doors and windows” of government must be permanently open for NGOs given their role in support of the poor in society.
But these comments are not consistent with the experiences of many NGOs when dealing with government departments and agencies. Even those agencies mentioned in the President’s speech – the National Lotteries Board and National Development Agency – have a problematic history and track record in terms of their relationship with NGOs. Recent comments by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande that some NGOs are part of an "ideological third force" are also not helpful in strengthening cooperation between NGOs and government.
So, what happens next? How do we ensure that the role of NGOs is properly acknowledged and supported in future? Finding answers to these questions are not simple, but also not impossible.
The recent focus on the NGO sector as highlighted above is definitely encouraging. It is in everyone’s interest if we know more about the internal and external challenges facing the sector, if the sector takes more responsibility for its governance practices, if more issues about the sector are discussed in national fora such as the NPO Summit and if the President of the country repeats his recent comments about NGOs on a regular basis.
But more needs to be done. NGOs have a critical role to play in this regard through the relevance and impact of their work. But government – on all three tiers and through its associated agencies – has an obligation to utilise the skills and experience of NGOs in confronting the development challenges facing our country, while also respecting the critical role of NGOs and broader civil society in deepening our democracy.
If government fails to act accordingly, the President’s comments will be seen as more empty promises, development efforts will be further delayed, and more people will be frustrated with the lack of service delivery.
Sadly, more NGOs will also close down.