A National in Dialogue: Revival of the South African NGO Movement Activism

“Is it not essential that there should be a constant renewal, a rebirth? If the present is burdened with the experience of yesterday there can be no renewal. Renewal is not the action of birth and death; it is beyond the opposites; only freedom from the accumulation of memory brings renewal, and there is no understanding save in the present”.  J. Krishnamurti, 1980: The Book of Life
The NGO SECTOR in South Africa faces institutional and political challenges. This is a result of the manifestations of the combined factors of historical continuities and contemporary socio-political and resource discernments. The prevailing environment however, presents opportunities for the sector to reflect and renew itself. The NGO sector, like many other organisations, has experienced strains in engaging effectively with evolving developmental context over the last 24 years. Over the coming few months, the South African NGO sector will be undergoing a process of self-reflection, self-understanding and revitalization. This process of self-reflection and audit is prompted by developmental challenges facing South Africa, especially the possibilities presented by this period of our fourth administration’s transition in search of a constructive role for all formations in our country, including NGOs and Community-Based Organizations (CBOs).

The post-Apartheid South Africa brought with it major challenges and a necessity for new roles and responsibility for NGOs and civil society generally - the opportunities which the sector could not progressively grapple with over the past twenty-four years.  Among other challenges, experienced leaders, managers and intellectuals left the sector to government and private sector. As a result, a vacuum is being created at the level of leadership, management, social policy analysis and strategic engagement. Further, experienced individuals took with them organizational memories, institutional culture and practice, and this has affected the ability of the sector to reposition itself during the ensuing periods of social transition. Most significantly, the sector failed to reflect on the dark history of racial ghettoization and domination within the NGOs, inadvertently or consciously burdening our future with unresolved curse from our apartheid past, as presently experienced through the distribution of funding and allocation of resources, as well as issues prioritised. This is precisely what led to SANGOCO’s as well as our progressive NGOs’ intermittent challenges and consequent demise, leaving a hollow void for a cohesive and progressive NGO sectoral coordination and strategic engagement with transformational social policy discourse.
The South African NGO revival and activism is thus an initiative born by the above experiences, and consequently aimed at responding to these challenges by strengthening and uniting progressive NGO voices and impact in our national developmental and transitional debates. Despite the wealth of knowledge and expertise within the sector, the NGOs in South Africa do not have resourceful spaces and positive lead-ins to engage and influence national development discourse. The NGOs across the country have to build stronger connections and viable bonds amongst themselves through a coordinated grid of networking and coalitions in order to upscale their potential impact on the national developmental discourse to complement and contribute towards all-encompassing and participatory debates aimed at enriching our developmental priorities and consolidation of our evolving democratic scheme.

To realize this objective, NGOs must commit themselves to work together through networks and thematic sectors and aggressively support the strengthening of links by engaging each other and collaborating across a range of national development issues and priorities.  Eventually, the revival process is aimed at building enduring ties between national, provincial and local NGOs and CBOs. During this process, the sector must collectively identify priorities and issues of pre-eminence affecting our national progress; develop common positions and strategies to respond to these challenges that concern our country. This is a process aimed at building and creating a community of interest towards advancing our common destiny and renewed national commitment to reset our post 1994 agenda as presented by the possibilities of the 2017 ANC elective national conference outcomes. 

Accordingly, South Africa is alive with new possibilities for a renewed resolve to reset a new agenda for socio-economic and political revival. This new found hope started with the African National Congress (ANC) December 2017 elective conference, which elected Cyril Ramaphosa as its new President. Notwithstanding the internal ANC dynamics, the events of the first two weeks of February 2018 turned our political landscape on its head and ushered hope for a new beginning for our democratic project.

While these euphoric developments are worth celebrating, history warns us that those who come to positions of responsibility as great reformers and people of integrity are often discarded by more fundamental, subterranean forces. The near universal approval that the President has received is not a product of his own efforts or remarkable acumen as it is the literal collective relief of the end of the administration of Jacob Zuma, so obviously bereft of competence and mere common decency. As the ANC has attempted to “self-correct” at its last conference, and as the incoming President has sought to reassure the nation, the fundamental questions of what led us to this unspeakable level of denigration cannot go un-asked and unanswered. As the revolutionary activist and historian so saliently pointed out -“history does not permit blank pages”. The history of the last 10 years, indeed the history of our country and our system of governance, cannot merely be changed with the stroke of a pen or the inauguration of a new President.

Moving forward is commendable and essential. But the old adage remains: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Our moment of opportunity lives in our resolve not merely to move forward but to do so enlightened by what has gone before and indeed, what is yet to come.  The new administration has many and varied demands placed upon it. It has a keen awareness of the challenges and this must be welcomed by all of us. And we must all fully appreciate to what degree our sectional and specific interests must be accommodated and elevated within the time and resources afforded the new President.

We are encouraged however, that in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Ramaphosa announced national priorities to re-set South Africa’s development agenda, and, among the issues he has committed  is to “…convene a Social Sector / Civil Society Summit during the course of this year to recognise the critical role they play in society”.

In this regards, the question arises as to whether the NGO sector is ready and able to play its part. Despite a progressive and vital role played by the NGO sector in securing our democratic breakthrough in 1994, the post-1994 period has seen significant changes in the character and content of the NGO movement. A vibrant and vocal NGO movement remains vital for our democracy to mature and flourish. We have always maintained that an actively engaged civil society is both a prerequisite for democracy, as well as its necessary outcome – both an ingredient in the making of democracy as well as the essential feature of the final product of a democracy. To be a democracy a vibrant and diverse array of opinions must not only be tolerated but flourish and find firstly self-expression and societal contestation. Democracy is not gifted by leaders or those in power but a lived reality which through its active expression reinforces our society as essentially free and democratic. Communities of interest, communities of place and space are overlaid and intersect with communities of values in an inexorable and inextricable process of challenge, contestation, change and transformation. New voices rise to meet new challenges under new conditions. Old values reassert themselves in times of turbulence and unimagined forms of self-expression gain ground and remake the terrain of old battles in new forms.
For this very reason it is necessary for us to identify the predominance of special interest; the fact that well-resourced NGOs have overshadowed and undermined the progressive cohort of our historic progressive NGOs. Credible social partners are essential to re-engage the state, labour and business in formulating a broader social compact. In this regards, a credible, critical and progressive civil society forces are essential to provide legitimate spaces and process for engagement and social mobilisation in support of a remapping of our priorities and policy choices as a nation at this critical juncture. The revitalisation of progressive NGOs and civil society alliances must be led by those who have the genuine best interest of South Africa at heart and must be a reflection of indigenous civil society grounded in the struggles and experiences of our people – legitimacy in this instance is derived from our common values which are democratic and transformational in spirit.
Regrettably, the NGO sector is the only civil society sector which is not sufficiently organised and coordinated to engage effectively with the national development agenda with one, united voice. Reclaiming of these spaces require concrete measures aimed at partnerships, not patronage, and resources for the independent movement building and the creation of a supportive and conducive enabling environment must be prioritised by the democratic state. The institutional architecture which was ushered in after 1994 requires a systematic review - a clear process is thus required which enables a credible and legitimate re-mapping to happen – only indigenous progressive forces can mobilise the support of patriots in strengthening the progressive NGO sector to be an active champion of poor, marginalised and vulnerable groups in our society, and can harness the energy from our grassroots constituencies in the development and implementation of national agenda and priorities. The NGO sector will play an important role in the shaping of our next decade of democracy.
In heeding a call by the President during his State of the Nation (SONA) address - let us begin this journey by getting civil society engaged in transforming the state and society. For it to play the role it should under democratic conditions of a transformational and developmental state, the NGO sector must begin to reflect critically and honestly about its own challenges - such as internal fragmentation and competition for resources, including being susceptible to highest bidders who not only encourage further divisions within a historically diverse, but cohesive community, but also derailment of national development agenda.

For this to happen, considering the lost decade that has just retreated, which prefigured a prolonged and hurting period which not only saw the state being captured and deviated, but also witnessed a systematic decimation of collective voice and capacity of our progressive NGO movement, new possibilities are on the horizon for the rebirth of our nation, and indeed our progressive NGO movement, and calls upon all our people and sectors of society to reflect on their role and contributions moving forward in the understanding and deepness of the Reconstruction and Development Programme. This was indeed a period where the ruling African National Congress was affixed on the edge of a cliff, and seems to have since undertaken a new journey towards a new dawn, renewing itself by retracing its roots back to the nation with the renewed verve, demonstrating eagerness for the revival of idealism of a nation at work experienced in the immediacy of a post-apartheid transition of Nelson Mandela’s administration.

This new dawn and impetus require all components of society to get-together to work with a single and common vision to ensure the realisation of our contract to the people. Important in the realisation of this renewed vision is the role and responsibility of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as the sector commands a special place in the hearts of our people, since it was also through their steadfast efforts that contributed to the attainment of our democratic dispensation aimed at restoring dignity to our people by creating a better quality life for all through building a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa.

The government must help to build on this newly found national optimism by invoking a sense of humility, wisdom and desire by vocalizing and engaging in an affirmative national storyline and by pursuing  the highest ethical standards of good governance, banishing corruption and wastefulness and interact with the broad spectrum of society to guarantee maximum national ownership and evolving benefits. The government and the ruling African National Congress must make profound determination to engage NGOs in articulating a cohesive national vision and fostering genuine partnerships towards forging national compact through social dialogue.

We are all aware that South Africa is faced with many challenges that require multi-facetted strategies that must be underpinned by the involvement of all sectors of society to ensure that the debate is guided and is able to lead us to a progressive direction - which we hope will once again place the people at the centre of development.
The NGO sector must noticeably re-define its role in the strengthening of the people's contract for a better quality life and the renewal of 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.
This is a call for the renewal of the South African NGO sector pledge and activism; it is a call to begin the journey of re-uniting and revitalizing NGOs to reclaim their rightful place in the ongoing democratic project. The sector must come out of this process with unblemished tasks for a strong, vibrant and dynamic NGO sector.

This article was written by Boichoko Ditlhake for 

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