Friday 15 March 2024

The role of NGOs in the public discourse and in shaping South Africa’s future state

The fifth in Archbishop Makgoba's Lenten reflections on the roles of different sectors of South African society. Previous reflections have covered the areas of  business, education, media and sport.

At the heart of our lessons this week is the message that when we identify and work with those on the margins and periphery of society, we share God’s steadfast love with them. We participate in their vindication; we show God’s mercy and compassion; and we stand in the gap as salt and light to alleviate their pain and suffering.

The non-governmental organisations of which I have been a part have all played such a role. In Johannesburg in the 1990s there was the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women and the Women Against Woman Abuse Project. More recently, my family has sought to promote security, education and social justice through the Archbishop Makgoba Development Trust. Church-based NGOs operate health, environmental, social justice, educational and feeding programmes, while other NGOs which I have supported in one way or another have served a wide variety of citizens' interests, including issues of land restitution, elections and the enhancement of democracy. As South Africa's National Development Plan states, all those bodies have sought to procure social cohesion through active citizenship.

Civil society in South Africa is characterised by an important and powerful NGO sector, one which has demonstrated that with systematic funding and support it can over time drive long-term, sustainable change.

As we consider our choices at the ballot box on May 29, one of the key questions I have is how the different political parties view the sector and how they propose to facilitate its contribution to improving the lives of our people. In order to assess the issues NGOs face, I have interviewed a number of leaders in their fields: a prominent head of a health NGO, a leading development expert, one who runs a funding NGO which facilitates the participation of others in society, the leader of a faith-based NGO working to advance Early Childhood Development and a person who operates another church-based group working in education.

Viewing the sector broadly, our NGOs act as social service providers, as advocates for the environment or for living or work standards, and as catalysts for democratic change. They often represent the interests of citizens who might otherwise be left out of national policy debates, opening the public discourse to people of all economic and social classes and to women and minorities. They allow citizens to improve society by advocating, educating and mobilising attention around major public issues and by monitoring the conduct of government and private enterprise.

But they are hindered by being under-represented in critical spaces of national dialogue. For example at Nedlac, the grouping which is meant to promote interaction between government and other constituencies in society, business and labour is well represented, but community organisations are represented by a narrow set of ANC-aligned quasi-NGOs, such as the South African Youth Council. So the place where a comprehensive national debate and dialogue should be taking pace excludes a key pillar of our society.

This bias was seen during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, when the government turned to business in establishing the Solidarity Fund. This was despite the private sector having little experience in responding to health crises, and our country having a civil society health sector that is world class.

One of the challenges in the relationship between NGOs and government is that they are viewed either as voices opposed to the State, or as agents of service delivery on behalf of the State. This undermines the vibrant contribution that they can make—innovating at the margins of society in ways that can show us where opportunity lies for deep change.

One of the most impressive instances in which different sectors have come together to change behaviour at significant scale has been through loveLife, the youth non-profit set up to combat the spread of HIV which also seeks to advance the total physical, mental and social well-being of young people. Combined with the movement for access to treatment for HIV, it has had a profound impact on the epidemic in South Africa.

Apart from the practical change NGOs can bring about at grassroots level, they have a rich history in South Africa of being the voice of transparency, often revealing publicly what many know but are too afraid to say. Their independence from government and corporate interests give them a real capacity to effectively expand the public narrative, raising critical issues which, even if government and business recognise their importance, they are constrained from initiating debate on themselves. In this way, NGOs often play a mission-critical role of shedding light on obvious socio-political blind spots. This might make being the voice of an NGO risky, but the worse the problem, the more we need our NGOs.

While NGOs are often under-equipped to bring about the kind of long-term change in social norms, attitudes and beliefs that their missions and their standard rhetoric demand, they are well-equipped to play the role of courageous champions of ideas, ideally placed to publicly ask tough questions.

In the democratic era, the investigative journalists of amaBhungane empowered faith leaders to call for an end to corruption in President Zuma’s administration, and later to call for him to resign and for the corrupt to be prosecuted and forced to wear those “orange overalls”. The media and civil society, including faith-based groups, can claim to have played an important role in the establishment of the Zondo Commission.

In an election season, the role of civil society becomes complicated because reason and balanced discourse is often set aside, replaced by polarising political rhetoric. Nevertheless, NGOs need to take the opportunity to ask the parties the tough questions:

  • What lessons have you drawn from the extensive work of communities and NGOs to create policies that really model equality of opportunity? (There is a very good example of the Social Employment Fund, which is modelling a very powerful public-NGO set of partnerships.)

  • What do you as parties see as the specific challenges facing education today and what are you going to do to remedy them?

  • How do you understand and relate to the deep, lived experience of children falling out of the education system, and in the context of this deeper understanding what plans do you have for change over time?

  • How do the parties understand the lived experience of people on the margins of our society, and what plans does each party have for addressing their exclusion and lack of access to opportunity?

  • How can the pursuit of universal healthcare put the experience of patients at the centre of its design, and how are you going to overcome the challenges to its delivery?

  • What do you see as the challenges facing service delivery more broadly, and again, what exactly are you going to do about them?

The objectives of NGOs are to pursue social justice, to be courageous and to challenge especially the powerful, the moneyed, the multinationals, and to hold them to account, to appeal to their consciences, their ethics and their morality in the interests of the poor and excluded.

The world of public discourse—political, social, diplomatic and commercial—has so corrupted language that we are rightly more suspicious of the meaning of the words uttered by protagonists in society than we are convinced of their veracity. So often, language is turned on its head. But NGOs can help each of us begin to think seriously about what action we and our country are called to, and therein lies my hope for the role they can play.

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