Global Policy Forum

All (Reasonably) Quiet on NGO Front- For Now


By Marina Penderis

Terra Viva
June 21, 2006

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) played a key role in fighting South Africa's apartheid system of government, and have remained vocal during the first decade of democracy in the country.

But, civil society activists interviewed by IPS caution that this benign state of affairs should not be taken at face value. Funding remains a contentious issue, for instance. Hassen Logart, media and communications manager for the South African NGO Coalition, and Mashile Phalana of Earthlife Africa say it is easier for an NGO that delivers services to obtain government funding in South Africa than it is for one involved in lobbying for policy change.

"Government doesn't want NGOs which advise, only NGOs which do things like feeding AIDS orphans," observes Phalana. Jane Duncan, executive director of the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute, says the war on terror has also made its presence felt in NGO circles. "More and more donors, especially U.S.-based ones, require NGOs to subscribe to combating terrorism -- and may also require them to take positions against controversial matters such as abortion." "This may...compromise the freedom and independence of NGOs to engage in advocacy that the U.S. may consider to be threatening to its interests," she adds.

Tessa Brevis, an attorney with the Non-Profit Consortium, notes that while there has been reform of legislation relating to NGOs in post-apartheid South Africa, "the implementation of that legislation is quite problematic." (The consortium is a training and research body that deals exclusively with legislation for non-profits; it is located in the coastal city of Cape Town.) Bodies such as the Non-Profit Directorate and the Tax Exemption Unit in the South African Revenue Service -- both created to support the NGO sector in terms of the new legislation -- are understaffed, she says.

In addition, the Department of Social Development last month released a report recommending that more resources be allocated to the implementation of the Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) Act. Passed in 1997, this law requires NGOs to register with the department, something which gives them access to tax benefits. Brevis says that while the registration process is not too difficult, it is time-consuming, often taking several months. Until the registration has been completed, NGOs may be unable to obtain funding, as prospective donors typically require an NPO number before they even consider financing an organisation.

The report assessing the NPO Act found that the Department of Social Development's information systems are adequate for registration purposes, but allow limited opportunity to monitor the awarding of grants. This could lead to inappropriate allocation of grants, noted the document. Despite the effects of certain laws on their activities, NGOs tend not to become greatly involved in lobbying for legislative changes, says Brevis.

"The priority at the moment is the funding crisis: after democracy, foreign funding is not as freely available," she told IPS, adding that according to NGOs, "a lot of funding (that would have been directed to them in the past) is now directed to the new, democratic government."

But, Logart believes South African NGOs' ability to fend for themselves in a changing climate depends on their level of organisation, rather than the legal framework in which they operate. "With bad law and good organisation, you can be OK. With good law and bad organisation, you have a problem. There must be a marriage of the two," he said in an interview with IPS. Not to be underestimated, however, is the threat of legislation to limit whistleblowing by NGOs, in instances where this is held to be reckless.

Currently, there is no legislation which prevents these groups from voicing their concerns, says Duncan. However, government suggested a law to restrict whistleblowing in April 2005, after Earthlife Africa – a regional environmental action group -- expressed fears about the safety of the Pelindaba nuclear facility, outside the capital of Pretoria. At the time, President Thabo Mbeki called Earthlife Africa's claims "reckless", "without foundation" and "totally impermissible". And, the then minister of minerals and energy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (now deputy president), threatened to legislate against those spreading "unnecessary" panic.

Just over a year later, as representatives of civil society gather in Glasgow for the CIVICUS World Assembly, plans to implement the legislation have not progressed -- although the Department of Minerals and Energy does not discount the possibility of it being introduced in the future. "If such actions were to continue, legislation would be looked into," Sputnik Ratau, media liaison officer for the department, told IPS.

The effect of laws governing NGOs will be debated at the five-day CIVICUS meeting, which begins Wednesday. CIVICUS is a Johannesburg-based NGO that supports the right of citizens to have a say in the political, economic and cultural life of their countries. NGOs have expressed fears that the mere threat of legislation on whistleblowing is enough to prevent issues of public importance from being raised in the future.

"Thabo Mbeki's statement that Earthlife's utterances were reckless...engendered a climate of fear and uncertainty in the NGO community," Duncan told IPS. "NGOs were unsure whether their ability to blow the whistle on crucial matters of public importance would be compromised." Phalana, co-ordinator of Earthlife Africa's 'Nuclear Energy Costs the Earth' campaign, echoes this sentiment, saying: "Although we were correct, we felt threatened."

He further notes that the relationship between authorities and NGOs in South Africa has changed over recent years. "Many people in the current government come from NGOs. In the first three years (of democracy) government looked for our skills. Now that policy has been passed, it is hard."

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