Tending a garden over the long term

Christa Kulijan

Who would have thought that in April 2009 South Africans would vote in a national election where the winning presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma, would enter his office under a cloud of corruption? Who would have guessed that the democratic government, led by the African National Congress, would reject a visa application from the Dalai Lama, in effect turning its back on the international human rights solidarity that it relied on 20 years earlier to end apartheid?

Given South Africa’s historic struggle for democracy and its progressive constitution, one might think that a strong democracy would be secured, but that is not the case.

Many worrying signs, including increased inequality, growing poverty and flaring violence against foreign nationals, mean that there is still work to be done to build democracy and social justice in South Africa. Social movements and civil society organizations continue to have a role to play in providing a voice for the poor and marginalized on issues of health, education and human rights.

The Mott Foundation began exploratory grantmaking in South Africa in 1988, building on the work of many other foreign donors that had already played a significant role in supporting the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Looking back over the past two decades, the two major thematic areas in which Mott has worked in South Africa have been 1) promoting citizen rights and responsibilities and 2) strengthening the non-profit sector, as an important component of civil society. Mott saw these two areas of work as related but clearly distinct. This brief article is not a thorough overview of building democracy and strengthening civil society over the past quarter century, nor is it a review of all the Mott Foundation’s programming in South Africa, but it does take a look at these two important issues through the lens of someone who spent 14 years at Mott.

The 1980s

It is 1984. It will be another five years before I begin working for the Mott Foundation. I arrive in South Africa to teach at an unusual, multiracial school outside Johannesburg. Bishop Tutu has just won his Nobel Peace Prize and the violence used by security forces against community protestors is more intense than anything since the 1976 Soweto uprising. I often compare the 1980s in South Africa to the 1960s in the US, a period of questioning the social order and pressing for social change. Years before the term ‘civil society’ was in common use, many churches, women’s organizations, youth groups, sporting clubs and civic associations pooled together to form the United Democratic Front to work towards a democratic South Africa.

At that stage, support flowed from European governments and other international donors through local conduits such as the South African Council of Churches and Kagiso Trust. ‘I went to Kagiso Trust in 1985,’ said one of the founders of a Johannesburg-based NGO. ‘[The head of Kagiso Trust] put his hand in his jacket, pulled out a chequebook and gave me a cheque for R10,000.’ Not every NGO had such easy access to money, but the 1980s was a period in which the numbers of community organizations grew. Unlike many other African countries, there was a growing indigenous NGO sector in South Africa and international money was flowing to these NGOs instead of to the government. It was in this context that the Mott Foundation began to explore how best to support these organizations.

The 1990s

It is 27April 1994. I am driving to Soweto to act as an election monitor, spending part of the morning in Diepkloof prison where prisoners have been secured the vote. Later that day, I stand in a queue with my mother-in-law and father-in-law, South Africans voting for the first time at the age of 60. This is the era of hope and excitement about South Africa’s future.

After four years of exploratory grantmaking, Mott decided to establish an office in South Africa, which I helped to open in January 1993. In 1993-94, Mott put close to $2 million towards grants to South African organizations supporting voter education, registration and monitoring for the elections – the largest contribution by an independent foundation.

Another area of Mott’s work to promote democratic participation was paralegal offices. Often based in isolated rural areas and urban black townships, these offices had a history of working in communities in the 1970s and 1980s to defend people against unlawful detention and abuses by the police. In the 1990s, they played an important role in voter education and in educating communities about new local government structures. Local elections occurred in 1995 and 1996 and citizen participation at the local level was built into local government policy. Paralegal offices also worked to communicate the content and meaning of the country’s new constitution, adopted in 1996.

Mott’s democratic participation work also had a specific focus on women’s participation, both in government and in NGOs. Mott supported participatory budgeting – including a women’s budget project that analysed the impact of public spending patterns on women.

After an evaluation and programmatic review in 1997, Mott shifted from general democracy and voter education to become more focused on citizen participation at the local level, especially in terms of engaging local government around key development priorities.

At the same time, Mott adjusted its programme to strengthen the non-profit sector, as one component of civil society, including efforts to develop a supportive legal and fiscal framework for the sector. Throughout the decade, Mott joined other international foundations, including Ford, Kellogg and Atlantic Philanthropies, to support a range of initiatives that built an infrastructure for the non-profit sector. These included the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), the Southern African Grantmakers’ Association (SAGA), research about the size and scope of the non-profit sector, and organizations that provided training and technical assistance to NGOs.

After the 1994 elections, the pattern of funds flowing directly to South African NGOs and conduits such as Kagiso Trust shifted. Bilateral aid began to flow to the new government rather than to NGOs, thus resembling aid to other developing countries. Many organizations faced financial difficulties, retrenchments and closure as a result. Given these concerns about reduced foreign funding, Mott supported efforts to access South African financial resources for the sector and encouraged local giving. It supported indigenous structures that pooled local resources such as savings clubs as well as efforts to recognize and encourage volunteers. Mott also supported the development of local grantmakers, including women’s funds; a pilot to test the viability of community foundation in South Africa as one way to pool local resources to address local needs; and a campaign to promote tax incentives for giving.

It is October 1999. I am sitting at one end of a large room in parliament with a group of donor colleagues on one side of a heavy wooden table. We are looking to the other end of the room to the parliamentary finance committee on tax. Many NGO colleagues sit expectantly in the gallery. ‘I am here on behalf of the Northern Donors Forum of South Africa,’ I begin, ‘an informal network of over 30 donor organizations based in Europe, the United States and Japan which have local offices in South Africa.’ Our submission, along with those of other local NGOs including SAGA, discussed the benefits of encouraging local giving and the importance of building the non-profit sector in South Africa. As a result of these submissions, part of a broader campaign led by the Nonprofit Partnership, the Minister of Finance announced changes to the law in February 2000. The new tax law came into effect in July 2001, broadening the range of non-profits that qualify for tax exemption and the range of donations that are tax-deductible.

The new millennium

Looking back at the 1990s, one could be forgiven for concluding that much of the work to strengthen civil society was a failure – despite this support from the government. SANGOCO is a shadow of its former self, with few members and limited influence – though it played a useful role during an important period in South Africa’s history. The community foundations that opened early in this decade have made slow progress in developing local community support and programmes. SAGA closed in 2006, as did several of the organizations focused on capacity-building for the sector, including the Development Resources Centre, Olive and Sedibeng.

Several other national coalitions closed during this period, the Urban Sector Network and the National Land Committee included. Among the complex reasons for their closing, it is clear that national coalitions buckled under the pressure to meet high expectations from donors and often lost contact with their membership base.

PlantThe challenges of the community foundation pilot and SAGA’s closure were especially instructive. Sharing ideas and models from the US is fine, but there needs to be recognition when they do not take root. In its 1997 annual report,[1] the Mott Foundation used the metaphor of tending to a garden over the long term. You need to learn about the soil and the environment first. If seedlings already exist in the area, it is best to nurture them rather than investing in a $1 million, seven ton, concrete pot before planting a few more seeds. You might be very disappointed when they all die or develop an allergic reaction to concrete. Building endowments too early or offering too much money upfront creates complex dynamics and competition for resources as well as problems with management and governance.

The 2002 review and evaluation of the Mott Foundation’s programmes helped to reflect further on the reduced pace of change and the growing emphasis on socioeconomic issues. Unfortunately, improved political rights had not translated into an improved economic reality for most. The effectiveness of the non-profit sector could thus be measured in terms of giving voice to and advocating for the poor and marginalized.

The growing number of social movements in South Africa – the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People’s Movement, the Coalition for a Basic Income Grant (BIG), and Jubilee 2000, to name a few – have brought greater attention to South Africa’s priorities in terms of enormous poverty and inequality. Many of these have benefited from support from international philanthropy. Over the years, Mott has supported the Homeless People’s Federation, Khulumani – a group of survivors and families of victims of human rights abuses who made submissions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). TAC is one of the strongest and most widely known social movements, which brought together a groundswell of support for anti-retroviral treatment for those living with HIV and AIDS.


Looking back over the past two decades and reviewing the Mott Foundation’s efforts to build democracy and strengthen civil society during South Africa’s period of transition, one of the biggest disappointments was SAGA’s closure. SAGA made an important contribution to the non-profit sector over its ten years of operation, but it never took root in South African soil. Among the problems of management, membership, programmes and governance, SAGA met its demise because it was always seen as an invasive (rather than indigenous) species.[2]

There are two areas related to promoting democracy and strengthening civil society in which Mott made particularly lasting contributions. The first is its support for creating an enabling legal and fiscal environment for the non-profit sector, one of the most enabling and progressive in the developing world. The challenge will be to make sure that civil society remains vibrant and relevant to South Africa’s challenges.

The second area – especially in a context in which more than half of the population lives in poverty – is its support, over many years, to paralegal offices and the national paralegal movement. By partnering with organizations such as the Community Law and Rural Development Centre (CLRDC), the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT), Black Sash and the Foundation for Human Rights, Mott helped build the capacity of these community-based organizations, helped build national recognition for their work, leveraged other donor support and assisted with developing links with the justice system.

It is 22 April 2009 – 25 years since the peak of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, 15 years since its first democratic election. Voting on Election Day was peaceful. Despite concerns about political leadership, the electorate voted the ANC back into power with a two-thirds majority. Given the socioeconomic challenges to government, the role of civil society and citizen participation will remain critical in the future.

South Africa’s democracy and civil society are like gardens that need to be tended over the long term. Without ongoing attention and care, they can perish. Local citizens and local organizations make the best gardeners. International foundations should partner with them, keep watch on changing weather conditions, try not to bring in any dangerous herbicides, and make sure not to give too much fertilizer to the weeds.

1 With acknowledgement to the 1997 Mott Foundation annual report entitled “A Garden Well Tended: Cultivating Effective Programs through Long-Term Grantmaking.”

2 See ‘SAGA – the end of the roller-coaster ride’, September 2006. See http://www.alliancemagazine.org

Christa Kuljian is a Writing Fellow at the University of Johannesburg and works as a development consultant and freelance writer. Email christak@alignafrica.com  

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