South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Endangered NGOs

New threat to the poor and vulnerable as charities and NGOs face cashflow crisis

New threat to the poor and vulnerable as charities and NGOs face cashflow crisis

In a country whose economy is already shaky to say the least, things can only get worse before they get better because of the Covid-19 pandemic. How will this put NGOs at risk?

There are tens of thousands of non-government organisations across South Africa that work on a daily basis to plug the gaps left by government and business. They provide health services, access to education for the very young, shelters for abused women and children. They are a vital, albeit largely unacknowledged, part of the safety net of our society.

However, Maverick Citizen is seeing evidence that these organisations are also in distress. The lockdown, the exclusive concentration on Covid-19 by many parts of government and business, together with the diversion of funds to bodies like the Solidarity Fund, is having unintended consequences for the most vulnerable. It seems like those with power in society have suddenly been blighted by tunnel vision that allows them only to see the threat to life caused by a virus, and not the threat to life caused by other symptoms of poverty and inequality.

Below, Maverick Citizen, publishes two letters we have received from some of the unseen activists who hold parts of our society together.

First up, Ian Hutton asks: ‘If NGOs were suddenly to disappear, would anyone notice?’  

Aids orphans and children from broken homes would notice. The drug addict desperate for help would notice. The quadriplegic in a shack who needs daily care would notice. The abused wife screaming silently for help would notice. The people in a queue at a fantasy soup kitchen would notice.  The waterless residents of a drought-stricken Karoo town would notice. 

The blind man trapped alone at home because he hasn’t had white cane training would notice.  Desperate and hungry immigrants would notice. The pangolins wouldn’t care because it is too late anyway. Or is it? 

NGOs, or Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) as they are officially called in South Africa, exist because the government cannot or simply does not do enough to support, protect or help vulnerable people. And there are also other areas where NGOs are active. Preserving our wetlands and saving our endangered wildlife, like the rhino, are just other examples. 

The truth is that, in this age of Covid-19, many NGOs are also endangered. Here, funding is a looming issue. 

In a country whose economy is already shaky to say the least, things can only get worse before they get better because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  How will this put NGOs at risk? 

In South Africa, the large corporates are obliged by law to put 1% of their after-tax profit into what they call Corporate Social Investment (CSI). In plain terms, that means money for funding NGOs. So the 1% stays the same, but the profits go down? 

Well, work it out for yourself. 

And it is the same with Charitable Trusts. They invest their funds and from the profits, they fund NGOs. The same applies. 

And then, there is the distinct possibility that some funders will, for the short to medium term at least, channel their funding towards NGOs who, for example, provide healthcare. Understandably so, of course. This will mean that they will suspend funding for the other NGOs whom they normally support. There is, after all, a limit to the funds available. 

What though of those NGOs who can’t pay their employees in a month or two’s time? 

There are over 100,000 registered NPOs in South Africa and maybe 50,000 which are not registered. This itself is a sign of the need out there. They range from an aunty in the Eastern Cape with a caring heart who runs a little orphanage, to schools who help children with learning disabilities. The examples are endless. 

Not all of these organisations can simply carry on doing what they do without endangering the people they serve or without endangering their own employees, with Covid-19 lurking any and everywhere. Not all of them can find or afford other ways of doing what they do. 

What will become of them if their funding eventually dries up? 

So, let’s say here that you are a blind person living in a township. You need to walk to your local spaza or supermarket to buy food. But that’s okay. You can do it because an NGO has trained you how to use a white cane. Even if you need someone to come with you to help you carry your groceries, that’s okay too. You don’t have to hold their arm to guide you. You can just walk normally with your white cane and they can walk a little distance from you.  And you have also been taught how to use an ATM. So you can withdraw the money you need for your shopping. And if, heaven forbid, you are feeling the possible symptoms of Covid-19, you can get yourself to the clinic. 

But what if you had not had white cane training? 

You would feel trapped and be dependent on other people for everything. It is a pity that that NGO did not get to you in time. They have had to suspend their training though. That is because it very often means working close to the person they are training – touching you when they are showing you the correct way to hold your white cane. 

You hope though that, one day, they will begin their training again, if they don’t run out of funds that is. 

This is just one example of possible things to come. 

But it is not that the NGO people have just sat back, hoping for the best. It is not in their nature. CAFSA, for example, has set up an emergency fund that is calling for donations to help NGOs through this crisis. Here is an extract from their website:

Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa (CAFSA) has launched an emergency fund to support local Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) during this challenging period.

With the economic and health challenges emerging from the Covid-19 crisis, thousands of NPOs are set to be impacted by funding shortages, which will result in a reduction or discontinuation of services and dedicated staff losing their jobs.

To keep these critical services going, CAFSA is mobilising support to make funding available to help NPOs who render essential services to the most marginalised individuals, groups and communities in our society.

We are calling on both individuals and corporates to donate …

But now comes the big question. 

Hello government! Where in all the decisive action that you have taken in this crisis, and that is meant sincerely, where have you mentioned, even once, the word NGO/NPO? Now more than ever, we must not allow the NGO sector to falter or fall. And so, we need to work together to make sure this doesn’t happen and this needs to be done at once.

Ian Hutton is the Managing Trustee and a founder member of the SA Mobility for the Blind Trust. The Trust is an outreach organisation that provides blind people with white cane training and training in other independence skills. They work throughout the country and focus on rural and township areas. Ian Hutton is blind himself. He can be reached at: [email protected]


Secondly, Johann Engelbrecht, a farmer in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, explains how an organisation he set up as a response to the HIV epidemic, now faces funding problems linked to the Covid-19 epidemic.

During the late nineties and early 2000s, our area was hit hard by the HIV pandemic. At that stage, I had 65 employees all having lived on the farm for generations, as my family started farming in the Piet Retief area in 1924.

Within six years, more than 30 of these employees either had died of Aids (secondary conditions playing a large role), or some of their close relatives were infected. As a farming community, we were all affected. This led to a decision to start a peer educator programme in order to get the right information to the villages and farmworkers.

We were also supported in this endeavour by a missionary from Germany, who was working in our area and who was experiencing the same in his congregations. Through him, we got some funding from an organisation in Germany, and could get Gary Bonney from Africa SIDA [Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency] to present a four-day course to about 40 representatives from the same number of farms.

One of the major outcomes of this course was to encourage people to test and to know their status. This of course was almost impossible in a rural set-up where the departmental services were lacking and the Thabo Mbeki government was wasting time. In 2007, we founded our NPO Thol’ulwazi Thol’impilo (translated from Zulu this means, To Gain Knowledge is to Gain life).

During the build-up to the 2010 World Cup, we got connected to a German organisation working in Nelspruit. At that stage, the State of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) had a partnership with the Mpumalanga government.

We had decided as an NPO that we wanted to enter into an agreement with the Mpumalanga Department of Health, whereby we would sort out the logistics of running a Mobile Primary Healthcare service on our farms, if they were willing to provide the health staff and the medication. After almost a year of negotiations, we finally had an MOA in place in 2010 and our mobile clinic started to operate just before the start of the World Cup. The NRW government sponsored a vehicle and we, as an NPO, started to fundraise money to cover its running costs.

Today, we are running a fleet of six mobile clinics and we visit more than 250 farms on a monthly basis. During 2019, we had just under 60,000 patient visits to our mobile clinics. Ten years ago, I would never have dreamt of such a rapid growth in our organisation.

I have been managing the NPO since 2009, when our missionary friend returned to Germany. At the moment, the service is running very efficiently, but we are running out of funds for the essential running costs, maintenance and repairs to an ageing fleet of vehicles. Our vehicles have done more than 300,000km on the badly deteriorated roads. Our German sponsors have paid for the other vehicles, but cannot contribute towards salaries (we have a small management and co-ordinating team and some counsellors which we employ), maintenance and fuel costs. Some of the farmers contribute, but most see it as the work of the government. The mobile clinics are currently distributing information, medication for chronic conditions and have started Covid-19 testing campaigns. They are also distributing food to those in need.

Our present budget is approx. R1.5-million per annum. We are now operating from month to month, not knowing where our funding will come from. We are also not getting to speak to the right people in the health department, because surely this service would have been budgeted for. During the lockdown, we have been able to continue and are distributing chronic medication and information on Covid-19.

We do not know what will happen once the rural populations start being infected. Unemployment, poverty and other social ills are real and will get worse if the lockdown continues for too long!

Johann Engelbrecht is Project Manager at Thol’ulwazi Thol’impilo. He is a descendant of German missionaries who arrived in SA in 1858. He was born, bred and now farms in Piet Retief. He studied Agriculture at Natal University, Pietermaritzburg. He can be contacted at [email protected] DM/MC


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