Many local civil society organisations are in deep crisis, with many unable to raise funds, others struggling to adjust to a rapidly changing society and many under attack from ANC leaders for their criticism of poor service delivery by the government.
Organisations that function outside the government and which include community groups and movements and charities – and whether providing charity services, helping vulnerable citizens or protecting individual rights – are referred to as civil society.
A number of iconic civil society groups have closed in rapid succession in recent years.
South Africa’s model constitution provides a special place for civil society to play an oversight role over democratic institutions, monitor human rights and to give citizens – especially the poor, vulnerable and excluded – the tools to know and assert their rights.
Civil society played key roles in the Struggle in defending the rights of disadvantaged communities, delivering public services where the apartheid state refused to do so, and providing education and training to multitudes.
Most of the progressive civil society groups during apartheid were funded by foreign donors and to a limited extent by liberal philanthropists in South Africa.
After 1994, many foreign donors argued that South Africa was now democratic and relatively more developed than other countries and so cut their funding to civil society groups.
Others channelled their funding to the government, to be used directly for government development programmes or for the government to distribute it to civil groups.
In many African countries, liberation and independence movements that became the government immediately swallowed civil society organisations into government agencies or made them conduits for government programmes.
In these cases, the governments demanded uncritical support from the civil society organisations. If they did not provide this support, these civil society groups were often proscribed.
In post-colonial and post-apartheid African societies where civil society groups had gained public legitimacy through their work during the Struggle, new governments often would try to delegitimise those that were critical by claiming they had become the “agents” of former colonial powers, hostile Western powers and domestic opposition groups.
In South Africa since 1994, civil society groups have continued to hold the democratic government to account.
Anti-democratic elements in the ANC government have frowned on civil society groups that try to hold the government to account, in many cases demanding they be proscribed and alleging that they are fronts for apartheid-era groups or for foreign enemies.
In the post-apartheid-era, the government set up the National Development Agency to channel foreign and state funding to civil society groups.
Later, it began distributing a portion of the lottery income to charities.
Civil society groups perceived to be critical of the government have regularly complained of being sidelined when it comes to National Development Agency and lottery funding.
A report by the Funding Practice Alliance found the National Development Agency failing its mandate of distributing funds to deserving civil society groups.
It also found that the funding from the lottery had not been effectively distributed to charities, often going to government agencies, well-connected “civil society” organisations aligned to political leaders, and bodies that could in many cases generate money. In a recent phenomenon, political leaders are increasingly establishing “charities”.
This is often more about securing public money for patronage purposes and to buy the political support of communities, than about providing “charity”, community upliftment or development.
This diverts scarce money from deserving and genuine charities.
Corporate South Africa has not funded civil society generously.
It has focused mostly on black economic empowerment (BEE) as a “redistribution” mechanism.
Most of this BEE has been focused on empowering a small group of politically connected individuals linked to the top leadership of the ANC.
In practice, corporate social responsibility rarely goes beyond trendy causes.
A strong civil society is essential for a quality democracy, sustainable development and social peace.
Civil society organisations, such as the Treatment Action Campaign, played crucial roles in compelling the government to roll out the provision of HIV/Aids drugs.
Others have helped the poor to understand and assert their rights, have taken the government to task over poor public services, exposed corruption, and made alternative information available.
Alarmingly, more recently, leading figures in the ANC alliance have stepped up their criticism of civil society groups that are critical of the government.
Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister and general secretary of the SACP, called civil society a “disease” at his party’s special congress last month.
He claimed critics in the ANC “used” civil society groups to attack the government and President Jacob Zuma. The lack of funding has caused many civil society groups to close shop.
Following the 2007/08 global and eurozone financial crises, many traditional foreign donors reduced or cut their funding.
Others have focused their reduced funding on causes that are “trendy” in their home countries.
There has also been a backlash in Western countries against providing foreign aid to African and developing countries.
The argument is made that such funding should be spent at home, and that it is abused by governing elites in Africa and developing countries rather than going to the poor. Idasa, which started out under apartheid as the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa, closed down last year because of a lack of funding.
The Community Agency for Social Enquiry closed down last month, also because of a lack of funding. Some civil society groups have been unable to reinvent themselves following the changes in society. Following the advent of democracy, South African society has changed dramatically, and community priority issues have changed. However, many civil society groups continue to operate as if apartheid had not ended.
Some civil groups are overtly ideologically in approach, not pragmatic enough, and oppose the government for the sake of opposing it.
Many civil organisations have also been dominated by the same people for a long time, and may not have been nimble enough to change their modes of operations, given the changing operational conditions.
Fresh leadership blood, ideas and approaches could have saved many a civil society organisation that has closed.
Others have simply been poorly managed.
In many cases, boards were stocked with friends or activists without special financial, legal or fund-raising skills.
Some civil society groups have failed to come up with new and more appropriate operational models to reduce costs, given the decrease in donor funding.
In some cases, as often occurs in government, the transformation of the top leadership was limited to appointing a black face at the top. The “black” face might have been an excellent activist but was ill- equipped to manage an organisation, running it into the ground.
A decline in civil society has devastating consequences.
The sector provides public services to vulnerable individuals and communities and focuses attention on issues that are neglected and where the government often fails.
The sector provides hundreds of thousands of jobs. It imparts skills, whether soft or in management or leadership, to many.
Civil society often fosters innovation and novel ideas to solve apparently intractable social and development problems – bringing peace, stability and growth dividends for society.
With a government that is over-stretching itself, a decline in South Africa’s civil society sector is likely to exacerbate the poor public service delivery, increase social ills – leading to more broken communities, families and individuals – and undermine overall development.
Many violent service delivery protests have occurred because of the decline in civil society organisations that could peacefully channel grievances, play a mediating role between the government and communities, and help communities better access government services.
Funding from the lottery will have to be given more fairly to civil society organisations – and less to those depending on political patronage and connections.
Similarly, government agencies will have to make funding more effectively available to civil society groups – and not on the basis of political allegiance.
South African business must put more into civil society. Professionals of whatever colour must become more involved in donating to civil society and volunteering their skills for civil society organisations.
An investment in civil society is the best that can be made in securing a sustainable future.
**This article was published in IOL. To view the article on their website click here.