Current and expected future challenges facing NGOs in South Africa

by Dr Rama Naidu, Executive Director, Democracy Development Program

South Africa no longer a priority for donor funding

South Africa is no longer considered a priority area for funders and money is being channeled directly to Government through bi-laterals. There is a mistaken notion that democracy is fully consolidated in South Africa and that support is no longer needed. The current state of the country attests to the naivety of funders. For citizens to fully understand and participate in all aspects of civic life, a democratic culture must be embedded in all aspects of their lives.

This takes time and resources and demands a different view from projects that can be measured in terms of clear outcomes and outputs. It also requires the NGO sector to have a stronger voice when it comes to engaging with the donor community about how funding is allocated and how organisations are kept accountable. There is also the possibility of engaging with Government, and even accessing funding, provided the boundaries of the engagement are clear and that organisations are not captured by the State.

Voice of civil society is weak and fragmented

The boundaries between civil society organisations becoming service providers and retaining their independent voice has become increasingly blurred as the funding challenges put many organisations into survival mode. Organisations that receive funding from Government or in partnership with them often find themselves being compromised in several ways. This sometimes manifests through the sector support for programmes and policies that are counter to the espoused sustainable development agenda of the state.

Without a platform that functions as a collective for the voices of citizens there is little possibility for robust engagement with the State that would include active dissent on some issues around governance and service delivery.

Although attempts have been made to form such a coalition, the political element of it has taken precedence over the work and the institution had been co-opted. Without such a strong recognised platform we will remain fragmented and continue to work in silos with limited impact. If such a platform is functional (and apolitical), Government will have to recognise and engage with it more constructively in the interest of its citizens. This can only be good for our democracy. Government needs to recognise the contribution of this sector to the overall development of South Africa. DDP has spearheaded the need for such a coalition and has been a key player in forming the KZN CSO Coalition.

Lack of sustainable development-centered programmes

 Civil society organisations need to recognise their own (often negative) contribution to the development agenda. Most organisations continue to work on mostly short-term projects with clearly measurable outcomes even though we know that the impact is minimal and is most certainly not sustainable. The work of empowering citizens is not an incident or an event in people’s lives – it must become a way of life. This means that organisations must walk alongside communities in a way that builds trust and capacity at the same time.

This requires resources and continued presence in communities. It implies a new way of thinking about development and a change of the idea that the communities that we work with are broken and need to be fixed. This serves to maintain the existing paradigm of hand-outs and dependence.

Politicisation of the sector

Related to the above remains the highly politicised nature of our society in South Africa, often to the disadvantage of building a strong cadre of independent civil society organisations that would be able to both challenge and hold Government to account. The legacy of the apartheid era and the subsequent liberation thinking needs a process of healing together with a view of creating a different future that is citizen-centered and pro-democracy. Twenty-five years later, it is time for the State and civil society to introduce a civic education programme at every level of society that builds strong, empowered citizens and keeps the state accountable and transparent to the people who gave them the opportunity to govern.


 Civil society organisations engaged in the work of governance and pro-democracy work face a crisis of resources all around the world in order to do our work. Often our work is an invisible thread that weaves the fabric of nation-building robustly and without fear.

This work must be supported.

Dr Rama Naidu is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program. He is a philosopher, a social activist, and a passionate process facilitator. Trained as a social geographer and as an organisational development practitioner, he continues to find innovative ways to enable the voices of ordinary citizens to be amplified for them to take responsibility for their own developmental journeys.

This is the fifteenth NGO analysis of my 2018 #NGOs4Africa Campaign.


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