May 18, 2007

Creating an Enabling Environment for Social Justice

Filed under: Theorising Practice_May 2007 — newritings @ 4:48 pm

“The question to ask about a country’s development is therefore: What has been happening to poverty? What has been happening to unemployment? What has been happening to inequality? If all three of these have become less severe, then beyond doubt there has been a period of development for the country concerned. If one or two of these central problems have been growing worse, and especially if all three have, it would be strange to call the result ‘development’, even if per capita income had soared.”It’s been broadly accepted as a point of departure that in order to help sustain the valuable contributions made by not for profit organizations in South Africa, more saw as a result of the democratic dispensation since 1994, had to do with creating an enabling legal and social framework for it to exist in order to grow and play a significant role in the economy, especially in the fight against poverty.

Over the past few years there has been notable and important government interventions in creating the necessary legislations towards this. This took the form of the Tax Exemption Act, the National Development Agency Act, the National Lotteries Act and the Non Profit Organizations Act amongst others. While all these pieces of legislations saw much progress in the struggles before enactment and thereafter, it nonetheless coincided with some worrying trends, such as the decline of critical and vigilant voices and the low levels of interest and activism by the sector in monitoring the impact of policy on the poor and marginalised, as well as the gaps in policy and the resourcing of the new legislative framework.

Impacts on the poor – this as a result at times of lack of coordination; unending strife; contradictions and opposition sometimes from within the non profit sector itself – protracted struggles. Perhaps it was unavoidable over time to resolve the resulting polarities given some of the difficult choices needed to be made such as working in support of government than in its opposition. Even more challenging were the changing funding developments with trends leaning towards the strengthening of the democratic state’s institutions as a primary focus for nurturing a young democracy, effectively channelling all financial support to it. However, with weak systems and lack of capacity, the state has often struggled to administer grants to the intended beneficiaries.

It begs a number of questions. Have these intentions of these important political (via legislation) interventions by government merely become technical instruments, which have created misleading impressions about government’s long term commitment to the general welfare and success of the sector? Or has the not for profit / development sector at large, simply lost its critical nerve and became gullible in the face of the massive challenge of transformation? Or maybe these technicalities have produced new nuances which manifest in part through the mushrooming of new types of community based formations contesting in the same space occupied by the traditional development NGOs? The latter factor has escaped in-depth analysis and may has resulted in progressive and corrective action from within the established movement. The lack of sustained funding for the sector is obviously also a factor but this I will not go into, suffice to say that underlying these concerns the fundamental questions remain: What has been happening to poverty? What has been happening to unemployment? What has been happening to inequality? These questions remain fundamental in order to contextualize the significance of the non-profit sector, as a participant in the struggle for justice, and also as derivative of society’s transformation agenda and not as an end in itself. These questions serve as a yardstick to measure the substantive inputs and contributions relevant in mitigating the negative structural conditions engulfing the poor. Progress must thus be measured by accepting these questions as a premise of debate as failure to do so, will result in meaningless talk.

When lobbying government to protect and help in nurturing sector, we must bear in mind the range of issues that are on the table at this time: keeping alive the culture of activism, addressing funding crisis, dealing with the brain drain – the massive exodus of its key professionals – to government and the private sector, fighting for voice for the poor in policy formulation and so on. All these speak to the sustainability of the sector. A good starting point must be to reflect on the legislative environment, which aimed to enable to sector to contribute to our democracy.

The fact that these laws concerning the non-profit sector continue to be fragmented has also not helped to translate them into a consolidated and realizable benefit for most of the poor and marginalised… [1]

In assessing the total impact of these laws in respect to civil society, we must now ascertain whether they have delivered the desired outcomes. In order to answer the question convincingly, it would be necessary to accept the difficult challenges borne out of a fragmented and varied administration entry points for non-profit organizations across government.

In reality, accessing the benefits resulting from the new policy dispensation has effectively meant that individual organizations engage(d) on their own with government and its appointed agencies. It has meant having the capacity to understand and use the legislation to its fullest in order to have a meaningful engagement with relevant government officials (be they in Dept of Trade and Industry, South African Revenue Services, Department of Social Development and so on), who in return could only interpret the specific law(s) that is/ are relevant in relation to their department. In practical terms, a CBO with hardly sufficient resources at its disposal (financial and human) to engage in this process literally struggles to gain from the advantages of the laws. This criticism must be understood in the context of retracing the steps that led to the current situation where, despite the required legal protection enjoyed so far, there is no correlation between them and the ability to use them effectively. They have become an achievement instead of an aide to one. This is because of the difficulties experienced in accessing them. This has created an unintended development where only those with better resources and slight advantage of knowledge about these matters have taken full advantage of the benefits regardless of whether the nature of their activities were critical or not to government’s priorities. Confounding matters even more has been the increasing pressure from the donors, that demand stricter compliance to “good governance” as per laws of the country and their often complicated grant agreements.

A combination of these factors has undoubtedly led to other interesting and at times controversial developments: on the one hand, government frustrated by lack of participation and / or at times impatient in its engagements with community based structures, has gone ahead to create its own quasi NGOs which as expected, in the main, were pro government. On the other hand, we witnessed the rise of ‘Corporate Social Investment’ funding mainly from corporate bodies often not always aligned to government development priorities, nonetheless contributed much needed resources to a sector that needs it most. Added to these, we witnessed the rise of the “new” social movements, critical of the “capitalist” governments policies and equally critical of NGOs/CBOs, accusing them of concerting to the negative neo-liberal agenda of government.

Unfortunately, whilst civil society formations have changed, the laws governing them have either not kept pace with these developments or hence become static in the face of these changes. Government in some cases have been part of the changing terrain of civil society, with the advent of Community development workers, and ward committees (community base worker programme?) which is seen as alternative or alternates to NGOs.

What this calls for is to the need to create, recreate, but not control an environment for genuine and structured participation of organized citizens with government. These engagements must be premised on the quality of engagements and not funding as a primary motive something that must be re-emphasized in our quest to deepen understanding as we rebuild a vibrant civil society.

Taking stock and moving forward

A number of audits have been undertaken to assess the impact of the current laws on the sector. The NPO Directorate conducted an in-depth analysis of its own work. Whereas others may have not intentionally conducted such self-reflection and evaluation processes despite extensive commentary done by independent agencies on them. This is further proof of fragmentation in analysis. For the work of the Non Profit Directorate is intrinsically linked to the tax regime, assessing one without intentionally factoring the implications of the other is work not complete. We therefore need a comprehensive assessment of these Acts since they are in theory linked together. Do these observations though necessitate a radical review of the Acts (legislation)? The answer is “perhaps not” as it has been shown that when some institutions keep abreast of important changes they are successful. This requires a holistic understanding of the full offerings of legislation and capacity to engage effectively.

The question to what extent has the sector prepared itself in engaging more effectively in these processes remains to be answered. For government, success of one agency has been realized or not using measures totally unrelated. For example, that several charity/non-profit activities have benefited through tax breaks does not necessarily inform a balanced view about whether these opportunities are enjoyed by the intended groups or not. That many community based initiatives are now registered with the Non Profit Directorate making them legitimate however, this too does not automatically ensure they are able to attract funding as they may have hoped.

Whilst it may have never been an intention of any of these laws to guarantee such issues as funding, it nevertheless should concern all of us that the mere existence of a positive legal and financial framework seem to be doing very little to encourage more meaningful participation by the broad civil society within government policy formulations. Such a process requires time and capacity. The effect has thus been a perpetuation of the rich NGOs at the expense of poor, less able ones.

We can thus conclude the political will on the part of government does exist to support in the work of civil society, although there are serious challenges to realise the intended outcomes of the various pieces of legislation pertaining to the sector. Part of the problem is the conceptualization of the laws, which gave rise to fragmentation that resulted in stretching the less-resourced organizations in trying to “access” them. In addition, central to this crisis has been the drastic changes in the funding environment with more funds channelled alongside government programme/s. The reluctance by many other NGOs and CBOs to grasp the implications of these developments to engage the space and “potential” that changes have rather than constantly moaning had a negative impact on the visibility and relevance of some non-profit organisations. Thus, a void has been created, which has since been occupied by the nunerous private consultants, a phenomenon that has often been blamed for the lull within the sector.

As a result of the fragmentation – and widespread poverty – we now have to deal with the mushrooming of community based structures (CBOs), which seems to have taken the sector by surprise at some point. We in the non-profit sector seemed unable to deal with them, and by our inability we further created fractures which “challenged” the status and position of the traditional NGOs as leaders in the development sector.

Amidst all these developments, government created its own structures especially with rising differences between itself and broader civil society on for example HIV/AIDS, land, macro economics. Here, we have seen in practice how the sector has been drawn into sponsored conflicts with some organizations openly in support of government whilst others against it. Unfortunately, these problems/ tensions over the years have had an impact and affected some of the historically progressive network structures such as SANGOCO and the National Land Committee to mention just a few.

In the absence of the rallying point nationally it must be said that the nature and character of civil society for the past years have radically changed. The cumulative effect of these must have been a result of the enabling atmosphere present that has also encouraged more plurality within the sector and the rise of spontaneous organizations regardless whether they are in support and, or against government – an ambiguity that seems to have confirmed the greater value of diversity and promise for the future of civil society.

* Thamsanqa Mabandla is the Acting Senior Manager Corporate Relation at the South African Revenue Services (SARS). The views expressed are not necessarily those of SARS.

[1] See also summary in this edition.


  1. […] by Conrad Jardine · A discussion on SANGOCO: Hassen Lorgat (SANGOCO) and Kumi Naidoo (CIVICUS) · Creating an enabling environment for social justice, by Thamsanqa Mabandla · Civil Society Speaks – Millennium Development Goals not our panacea but […]

    Pingback by Contents of Theorising Practice, May 2007 issue « newritings — June 10, 2007 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  2. […] It is in this regard that the writings on the enabling environment by former SANGOCO staff member Thami Mabandla and Conrad Jardine (Inkanyezi Guide Star) reflect upon, as it speaks to the challenges of renewal […]

    Pingback by Editorial: Life in the time of Post-Gear « newritings — June 18, 2007 @ 7:34 am | Reply

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