South African NGO Movement Challenge

South Africa is going through a period of reflection, observation and forecasting for the future so blighted over the last ten years. During this reflective period, it is more so important for South Africans to pause and ask themselves some pertinent questions. How was it so simple and possible for our country to be deviated and stolen so brazenly? This question is particularly significant given the diversity of civic activism and awareness of the South Africans with so many organisations within the non-state sector. Did we lower our guard, and if so why? What lessons have we learnt from this wretched experience, and how do we proceed to ensure that never again shall our Republic be siphoned and stolen from us and our future generations?

It is in this regard that the revival of the South African NGO unity of purpose, coordination and activism is framed and located. It is very apparent that the sector has gone into slumber, especially over the past decade or so, giving rise to unfortunate developments such as at LIFE ESIDIMENI, and the unfathomable experiences that our social security beneficiaries have been subjected to by the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) and the Department of Social Development. Arising from, among many other deplorables, is the blame being placed on the NGOs who participated in this ill-fated expedition known as Life Esidimeni, thus tarnishing the good, value-based work done by many NGOs across the country. Consequently, trust deficit and mistrust has been planted against non-governmental organisations. How do we repair this damage and rebuild trust of NGOs within our communities? This is so important given casualties and pain that Life Esidimeni has brought about.

Further, NGOs are facing a great number of challenges arising from internal weaknesses as well as limitations emanating from official frameworks and support mechanisms aimed at strengthening NGOs by the democratic developmental state post-apartheid. These challenges within the NGO sector and externally have impacted negatively into the further development, effectiveness, unity of purpose and impact of the sector. These relate to state-civil society relations, internal civil society dynamics and the post-1994 funding crisis, despite enactment of legislation such as the Non-Profit Act of 1997 and institutions set up like the Directorate of Non-Profit Organizations and the National Development Agency. The combination of these challenges and failures of the NPO Act and NDA have led to the fragmentation and weakening of organized and coordinated progressive coalitions of NGOs, and consequently denying the democratic project of one of its critical players – a strong, vibrant and engaging NGO sector. These directly led to the collapse of many NGOs across the country as evidenced by the deregistration of more than thirty thousand NPOs by the Department of Social Development. This is, in itself an indication of the serious capacity challenges within the sector and the failures of both NPO Act and National Development Agency. Are the NPO Act and its Directorate still relevant under present conditions and experiences?  Does the mandate of NDA need reviewing and readjusting to fit the purpose?

It is in this context that revitalisation of the NGO sector activism is urgent and critical so that we establish our framework of self-sensor and setting of ethical standards to renew our social contract with the communities that the sector serve, as well as effectively engage with the policy frameworks by government, including reviewing of both NDA mandate and NPO Act to reflect and resonate with supporting and enabling environment for NGOs to operate effectively and impactful.

South Africa is confronted with polarising policy choices which were expected to have been resolved during our first democratic transition and administration. These include free higher education, NGO funding models and enabling/supporting environment, high levels of unemployment, land reform (specifically expropriation without compensation), high levels of corruption and maladministration, economic down-turn and assault on our institutions established to anchor our democratic governance within the constitutional precepts.

In responding, and effectively engaging with the social compact summit proposed by President Ramaphosa, the NGO sector is called upon to re-organise, coordinate its activities and revitalise its social activism. The sector needs to activate its united voice in re-articulating policy discourse. The sector is challenged to address the policy review on a number of issues such as land, education, health, employment and economic growth as their contribution to ensure that the country is forward-looking in addressing these challenges and proffer possible solutions and strategies, and not be clouded and influenced by political-party populism and fear-mongering as we approach national elections in 2019. In this regard, and for the presidential social compact summit for the social sectors to be meaningful and effective, it must be pushed back to November in order to allow full consultations and sufficient coordinated considerations and consensus-building on policy options by the sector.

South Africans need to be actively engaged in national matters and in turn re-engage political parties in formulating their manifestos, and hold them accountable to their promises post-elections. The more the discussions on policy options and choices are open for citizen’s participation and diversity, innovation and learning, the more effective they are likely to be, and enhance national cohesion and appreciation of the challenges South Africa face. Most significantly and urgently, the NGOs’ expertise and experience to contribute towards the review of the impact of our policy implementation during the past 24 years, assess current trajectories and gauge possible alternative solutions is more urgent now than ever. If the government and political parties are committed to the social compact, then we must depart from the understanding that the prevailing policy positions are not cast in stone, that they are open for further critical examination, allowing new ideas and alternative initiatives to break-down the current stand-offs and stalemate to make way for effective participation and social compact to deepen. 

The NGO sector is challenged to re-define its role in the strengthening of the people's contract for a better quality life and the renewal of the South African dream. It is thus imperative for the sector to convene itself to determine its agenda in the context of national development challenges and priorities, and reclaim its role and space. All South African NGOs at national, provincial and community levels are invited to engage with the renewal and revitalisation process as follows:

  • National Consultative Forum of national NGO sectors and networks –  28 March 2018, Parktonian hotel, Braamfontein, Gauteng
  • Provincial consultative forums – April to July 2018;
  • National NGO Week/Consultative Conference  - October 2018;

Boichoko Ditlhake, Coordinator
On behalf of the Coordinating Committee, led by SANGONeT

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