SA civil society veteran warns of the dangers of the ‘Ramaphosa effect’

By Rebecca Davis 7 February 2019

Open Society Foundation South Africa portrait of Fatima Hassan.

Outgoing director of the Open Society Foundation Fatima Hassan believes that civil society has a new opportunity to work in partnership with the government under the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa. But Hassan also warns that this period could be bad news for NGOs which need funding — as the Ramaphosa effect is causing a false sense of security. She has a message for business: If you want an independent media and a vocal civil society, put your money on the table.

For the past six years, Fatima Hassan’s boss has been a man who is alternately reviled, admired, and accused of plotting “regime change” possibly more frequently than any other individual on earth.

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros has become a cartoonish figure of evil for the global alt-right, and parts of the extreme left too. Criticism of Soros is often expressed in language with strong overtones of anti-Semitism. US President Donald Trump has accused Soros of paying people to protest against his presidency. When a series of mail bombs were sent to prominent American figures in October 2018, the first target was Soros.

But for Hassan, the work that Soros’s money has made possible in countries such as South Africa, through the Open Society Foundation, speaks for itself.

I have a deep appreciation for the fact that (Soros) will put funding where other people are reluctant, and that he has total deference to local staff and contexts,” Hassan told Daily Maverick in an interview this week.

Hassan will step down as the director of the Open Society Foundation in July to return to her first love: Human rights law. She won widespread acclaim for her work as the lawyer for the Treatment Action Campaign, in the group’s battle against the government to secure affordable anti-retroviral treatment for ordinary South Africans.

In her role at the helm of the Open Society Foundation, Hassan has seen first-hand the struggles faced by South African NGOs to attract — and maintain — funding.

(South African NGOs) are reliant on a small philanthropic community, a lot of whom are mostly concerned with issues we call ‘non-controversial’ — they don’t get you into trouble with the government,” Hassan says.

Much of the available funding for local causes comes from international foundations with deep pockets, such as the Open Society Foundation. In South Africa, both individuals and big business are far less likely to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting civil society than is the case elsewhere.

It will take at least another 10 years to build the class of people (in South Africa) who appreciate and understand why funding human rights issues is important,” Hassan predicts.

Of course it’s a concern that civil society in many cases has to rely on foundations which are American or British and can’t rely on local philanthropy. That’s something we see in many emerging democracies.”

Towards the end of the Zuma years, Hassan says there was a moment where it seemed that the tide was turning in this regard; that it was finally understood that bad things happen in countries without a strong civil society or a free media.

But one of the counter-intuitive knock-on effects of better governance is that citizens tend to lapse into a false sense of security as soon as the moment of crisis has passed.

In this moment we’re in, there’s a concern about a social justice funding crisis because of the Ramaphosa effect,” Hassan says.

There was a moment when people realised we needed to fund a free media — but the minute Cyril (Ramaphosa) was appointed, that dissipated.”

Hassan expresses deep frustration about this state of affairs — that people tend to only wake up to the necessity of media freedom and freedom to protest when both are in danger.

The lesson we’ve learnt at the Open Society Foundation in the past 30, 35 years is that support for civil society should never be tied to an individual president or party. You create even greater threats to sustainability if your funding is dependent on who’s occupying political office,” she says.

Besides which, democratic rights have to be flexed lest they gradually atrophy. Or as Hassan prefers to put it: “Democracy is like a bath — you have to do it every day.”

She says it is high time that South African business came to the party properly in terms of providing funding for local civil society.

Where is business?” Hassan asks passionately. “Put a billion Rand in a social justice pot! You claim you want to root out corruption after Bain, McKinsey…”

Ask Hassan if South African civil society is in good shape, and she freely admits that the sector has issues.

Last year (2018) was difficult. There were at least 10 different organisations dealing with claims of sexual harassment; there’s no sense of contractual security; there’s a rotating door when it comes to staff; there are challenges around legitimacy, representation, class and race. I’m not saying that it’s a rosy kind of environment.”

But there’s another point she keeps coming back to: that South Africa has some of the most highly skilled activists, investigative journalists and litigators on the continent, if not in the world. It’s something we don’t celebrate enough, she suggests.

Civil society and the South African government have often been at loggerheads since 1994, as Hassan knows intimately from her work with the Treatment Action Campaign. But early signs are that the Ramaphosa administration may build stronger bridges with NGOs than has previously been the case.

At the moment the preliminary signs are that here is a government where departments and ministers are more appreciative of the work of civil society and less fearful of donors,” Hassan says.

For South Africans who remain unconvinced that civil society deserves their financial support, the human rights lawyer has a reminder.

It was a civil society which led the charge on State Capture, and civil society which led the charge on resisting nuclear,” Hassan says. DM

Disclosure: Daily Maverick’s investigative arm, Scorpio, received seed funding from the Open Society Foundation-SA.


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