Reflections on the state of civil society in South Africa


Judith Mtsewu


It was Albert Einstein who said that ‘in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,’ and it is a sentiment that rings true for the state of the NPO sector in South Africa currently.

Civil society across the globe has evolved and changed markedly over the last two decades, leaving many in the sector having to reflect, analyse and readjust the way things are done.

While there continue to be significant issues to overcome, we are also seeing new opportunities emerging that CAF Southern Africa believes will assist the NPO sector to navigate through changes and challenges, and strengthen in far-reaching (and perhaps even unexpected) ways.

Funding challenges and the rise of the individual giver
One of the major issues we are facing in the sector is the ongoing challenge of dwindling funding, especially in respect of traditional donors of the sector. NPOs and NGOs are already experiencing this, and there is no sign of this improving anytime soon.

This is certainly not the only issue, but it is one that is challenging us to look at funding and donations differently and to find other solutions for the sustainability of our organisations and their work.

Changes in the global arena are largely driving the shifts in funding. For example, the rise in nationalism and populism, as evidenced, for instance, by Brexit in the United Kingdom and through the election of Donald Trump in the United States. These global events have had policy implications, which in turn have had an impact on the funding of international programmes.

In some cases, this has already led to funding being directed elsewhere, acutely affecting many organisations locally and in other parts of the globe that have traditionally depended, in large part, on international donors.

For example, the withdrawal of US funding from UNESCO has had a significant impact on its operations. Similarly, other big funders like the Department for International Development (DFID) have been reviewing, minimising and in some cases withdrawing funding support, causing turbulence for their recipient NPOs in many developing countries.

On the flipside of this, while we are experiencing a decrease in traditional funding models, we are also seeing an increased focus on individual giving, which presents itself as a potential solution to the funding challenges.

Research on giving trends and individual giving points to the potential of individual giving to increasingly play a more significant role in a country’s development and the civil society sector’s sustainability. For this to yield tangible results, individual giving needs to be cultivated in deliberate ways.

For instance, despite challenging economic circumstances, the South Africa Giving 2017 report reveals that individuals in South Africa – particularly the younger generation – continue to give of their time and money to assist individuals and communities in need.

The report reveals that eight in ten of those surveyed (81%) had given money in the past 12 months, either to an NPO/charity, to a church or other religious organisation, or by sponsoring someone.

The opportunity to harness the power of technology
Technology and the digital revolution has put power in the hands of individual citizens, and it is important for us to acknowledge and reflect on what this means for the traditional role of civil society organisations in supporting causes, galvanising support for causes, and connecting people.

Citizens are actively driving their own activism and change-making through social media campaigns and sourcing funds in support of causes through crowdfunding platforms and other digital means.

It, therefore, makes sense that NPOs themselves need to find a way to access the ‘individual giver(s)’ through these technology platforms and this may require an upfront investment by the NPO.

The sector needs to find a way to harness this digital revolution to strengthen its ways of working to become more efficient, to keep up with the changes, and importantly, to keep relevant.

Collaboration is key
Authentic, supportive collaboration is acknowledged by many as the ‘key ingredient’ that civil society needs more of.

Rather than safeguarding knowledge and experiences, our sector would become far stronger by sharing challenges and potential solutions, and growing together.

For example, we are already aware of organisations that are making a success of collaboration by collaborating in different ways, such as sharing office space and even submitting joint funding proposals to donors. There is more of this that we can do.

Collaboration is necessary if the sector is to achieve deep and meaningful systemic changes that lead to real transformation. These collaborations need to be all-inclusive, inviting every player within our civil society ecosystem to the table.

Judith Mtsewu is the Knowledge Manager at CAF Southern Africa.

This article originally appeared in David Barnard’s #NGOs4Africa blog series on 8 August 2018. The original article can be found here.

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