Funding uncertainties leave non-state organizations in limbo

The question raised by the title of this panel, “Should the State Support Pesky Non-State Organisations?” is probably answered in the first few minutes of the discussion, when it becomes obvious that the first two discussants, recently retired CEO of civil society organization, Charities Aid Foundation South Africa, and activist and writer Elinor Sisulu, believe passionately in the importance of non-state organisations in South Africa. If some of these organisations are “pesky” in that they keep the state accountable and raise issues of social justice, then this is a very good thing. The third member of the panel, Justice Albie Sachs also argued for the essential role that NGOs play in maintaining a free and functioning democracy.

The panel discussion, organized by the Legal Resources Centre, looked at why and how the state should continue to support NGOs/ NPOs/ PBOs (Public Benefit Organisations) and other civil society groups through the National Lotteries. As Du Toit explained, this is an increasingly urgent question in the context of frequent non-payment of subsidies, shocking incidents such as the Esidimeni psychiatric healthcare travesty, and the critique of NGOs as “destablilising” forces by top ANC officials.

Futhermore, controversial changes to the regulations around the Lotteries funding are being mooted, which is alarming. Du Toit spoke of the “closing space for civil society”.

Sisulu foregrounded the “myopia” of politicians who downplay the role of civil society groups, as in many cases these organisations are picking up slack in areas where the government organs are under-resourced or poorly organised. In fact, in many cases, the cost to the state is less if they rely on subsidised Child Welfare social workers to fill gaps in care, for instance, rather than public servants.

Yet these very organisations, with all the significant social roles they play, from early childhood development to care of the aged, who are under threat by the vagaries of the funding system. Sisulu believes this is evidence of the state’s hostility towards NGOs. A robust civil society, such as that developed through the United Democratic Front during the fight against apartheid, is now seen as a threat rather than an ally.

This is not helped by what the government has termed “lawfare” – frequent court battles between NGOs and the government, often surrounding the state’s dereliction of their statutory obligations towards the South African people.

Justice Sachs responded to this point by suggesting that rather than overreaching, courts who uphold the duties of the state are maintaining the integrity and vitality of other organs of government. He suggested that court judgements which promote transparent and robust democracy “give people hope that the constitution does mean something”.

Colleen Du Toit interjects to remind Sachs and the audience that it was an NGO, the Black Sash, who applied to the Constitutional Court to compel to Minister of Social Development and the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) to take measures to ensure that the social grant  beneficiaries were protected when the contract between SASSA and Cash Paymaster Services ended. “So”, says Du Toit “Viva NGOs.”

Listen to the debate here:

By Andrea Thorpe

Picture credit: Legal Resources Centre


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