In his latest policy brief, Prof William Gumede suggests ways to create a more sustainable and effective civil society landscape in South Africa. Here, he elaborates on the organisational agility, leadership and partnerships required to do so.

What is the state of traditional civil society funding in South Africa?

With South Africa assigned junk status by two global credit rating agencies, traditional sources of funding are likely to decline. This follows the aftermath of already declined foreign funding, as a result of the 2007/8 global and Eurozone financial crises. More recently, the rise of populist and conservative governments in many industrial countries has also negatively impacted previous levels of funding to developing countries. Donald Trump’s presidency further raises the spectre that official development assistance to Africa may be dramatically slashed.

How can civil society better structure itself to not only withstand, but thrive during these challenging times?

Civil society organisations (CSO) must get better at stretching available resources, become more innovative, streamline internal operations, strengthen internal governance and accountability systems, and improve transparency and project management skills.

Boards should be appointed on the basis of skills they can bring to CSOs. In these times of stress, civil society should look for individuals who bring technical, professional and financial skills, which organisations need, but may not have.

What is the value of collaboration in the sector, and among development stakeholders more broadly?

CSOs will have to collaborate more effectively, pool resources and integrate their programmes more creatively. For example, similar CSOs could cluster together to share personnel and services and to fundraise collectively.

They will have to improve partnerships with communities, by more effectively using available resources, such as schools, churches, government delivery sites and people. They will also have to bring in volunteer skills: young people, retired professionals and those with time to spare, who want to make a meaningful contribution to society.

What, in your opinion, is the relationship between civil society and government?

At the moment, civil society is seen as the enemy by many government leaders. ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe, following a meeting of the ANC’s National Working Committee in 2016, claimed South African civil society groups were being used by foreign “elements seeking to affect regime change”. Former State Security Minister David Mahlobo also claimed that domestic and foreign state and nonstate actors were using local civil society groups to influence the country’s politics.

South Africa needs a new model in which civil society co-governs with government at national, provincial and local level, partnering with government to deliver public services, and playing a stronger oversight role.

How can government funding of civil society be improved?

CSOs must put pressure on government to distribute funds more accountably, fairly and meaningfully. They should be involved in ensuring that competent people are appointed to public funding agencies and should monitor their activities and distribution of funds to ensure that it goes to deserving communities and groups.

CSOs should get more involved in how Lottery money is allocated and ensure that application processes are transparent, simple and quick. They must also insist that state-owned enterprises provide funding to deserving social justice and human rights organisations and charities.

What are some of the local sources of funding that could potentially fill the gaps being created by declining international funding?

South African civil society will have to start to tap into funding from the middle class, including the new emerging black middle class, and young professionals. CSOs could explore establishing ‘friend’ or ‘member’ forums of professionals who could give regular small amounts, whether in the form of monthly or yearly subscriptions or debit orders.

Civil society should push corporates to fund social justice initiatives, as well as to include CSOs in all BEE transactions. In Italy, Portugal and Spain, taxpayers can designate a percentage of their personal tax income to non-profits. In Slovakia, corporates can designate a percentage of their taxes to non-profits. In the city of Ichikawa in Japan, citizens can give a percentage of their municipal tax to public benefit organisations and causes.

In the South African case, the proceeds of such a tax designation could be put into a civil society fund, which would be managed by civil society. Alongside such a mechanism could also be more generous tax incentives for companies that give to civil society.

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