The challenges facing South African civil society organisations

by Ntsiki Mpulo, Head of Communications, SECTION27

South African civil society organisations have a strong history of successfully challenging the status quo to the benefit of broader society. One of the most notable examples is the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid organisations, which fought within the country’s borders to overthrow the illegitimate Apartheid government. In more recent history, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) fought and won the battle to force the government to provide essential anti-retroviral treatment in the public sector to people living with HIV.

In the aftermath of these very important battles, it appears that civil society organisations became complacent. We had decided that the work of making a better South Africa was best left to the government of the day.

We were wrong.

While we, as civil society organisations, set about fixing individual systems to make the country work, nefarious forces were intent on corrupting the entire system as a whole. Our citizens were robbed of their social security through corrupt tenders, our public health care system was looted and brought to its knees through mismanagement, our education system was crippled and learners bore the consequences of the textbooks scandal, a tender riddled with irregularities as well as the government’s failure to build safe, secure toilets.

These failings can be reversed if people know, and stand up, for their rights. An engaged and informed citizenry is what it takes to make a better South African and herein lies the opportunity for civil society to make an impact again.

A recent study found that three quarters (75%) of all adults in South Africa stated that a good citizen in a democracy should always vote in elections. This proportion was consistently high across race and sex as well as across the different dwelling and geographic types. Limpopo (66%) was the only province in which this proportion fell below 70% – a quarter (26%) of Limpopo respondents argued that a good citizen would only vote if they chose to.

Two-thirds of (57%) of adults in South Africa were not satisfied with the respect for human rights in the country. A similar proportion was either not at all satisfied (23%) or only slightly satisfied (34%) with the way in which the rights in the Constitution are upheld. Six out every ten (58%) respondents were also dissatisfied with the independence of the National Prosecuting Agency (NPA), while the level of dissatisfaction was highest (65%) on the accountability of members of parliament (MPs) – more than a third (35%) were not at all satisfied and three tenths (30%) were only slightly satisfied.

Dissatisfaction about the accountability of MPs was fairly consistent across black African (63%), Indian/Asian (65%), coloured (68%) and white (68%) respondents, as well as across male (66%) and female (63%) respondents. Levels of dissatisfaction were highest in North West (75%) and Western Cape (71%), whilst they were lowest in Mpumalanga (58%) and KwaZulu-Natal (59%).

Civil society organisations can no longer focus on individual cases and systems. We all need to work together as a collective to create a groundswell of opposition to the forces that threaten to destabilise our fragile democracy.  We need to stem the tide for corruption across both the public and private sectors. We need to fight for those in power to be held accountable to the people and we need to ensure that our Chapter 9 institutions are adequately resourced in order to provide us those accountability checks and balances.

For this, we need sustainable sources of funding and the private sector must play a role in creating a sustainable future for South African civil society.  A stable democracy and an integrated, well-functioning society is good for business, and civil society organisations are a critical piece of the puzzle in attaining these outcomes.

Ntsiki Mpulo is the Head of Communications at SECTION27. She joined the organisation in August 2015. As a passionate activist for the rights of young women, she summited Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the Centenary Trek4Mandelao to raise funds to provide sanitary towels for young girls in schools.

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

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