‘Hardline decisions’ by new Oxfam SA director spark protest by partners and stakeholders
A protest outside Oxfam South Africa in Johannesburg this week has cast a shadow over the internal stability of the social justice organisation. At issue are claims of impropriety that include the abrupt termination of projects. The organisation’s new leadership has hit back at its critics, pointing to change and restructuring that it says are aimed at tightening ‘weak controls’.
A number of partners and stakeholders of Oxfam South Africa (OZA) protested on Monday at the Oxfam offices in Killarney, Johannesburg.
The protest was directed at Oxfam South Africa’s board of directors, with protesters alleging a litany of problems at the organisation since Lebogang Ramafoko’s appointment as executive director in April.
Ramafoko was the CEO of the Soul City Institute for Social Justice, based in Johannesburg, from 2011 until 2020. After stepping down as CEO of Soul City in 2020, she helmed the advocacy organisation Tekano in Cape Town before joining Oxfam SA.
“Oxfam SA faces an internal revolt over the dictatorship of the newly appointed Oxfam SA director, Lebogang Ramafoko over her hardline decisions including cancelling support to community programmes that were planned and budgeted [for a] long time ago, before she came,” is among the claims made in a protest media release.
However, OZA has claimed otherwise, saying it is in the process of “restructuring and improving a number of its programme and operational procedures,” following Ramafoko’s appointment.
About 20 partners and stakeholders gathered on Monday to protest over the challenges faced by the organisation and its partners. During the protest, a memorandum detailing the partners’ concerns was handed over to Oxfam management, said Lucky Shabalala, the coordinator of Sisonke Environmental Justice Network, one of Oxfam’s partners in KwaZulu-Natal.
“The director was not at the office, but the head of programmes was present, and she took and signed to have received [the memorandum] on behalf of Oxfam,” he said.
Oxfam South Africa is a social justice organisation that works in partnership with grassroots organisations on issues pertaining to women’s rights and gender justice, economic justice, environmental and climate justice, and democracy and governance.
This is done through “long-term development programming”, and OZA works for the “socially excluded and most marginalised communities by mobilising them to campaign for greater economic and social reforms”.
Oxfam International was formed in 1995 by a group of independent non-government organisations. There are 21 member organisations of the Oxfam International confederation, in countries including India, Germany, Hong Kong and South Africa.
Oxfam raises funds based on the programmes or projects of its partners. After receiving proposals from its partners, it develops a fundraising strategy which is distributed to various funders. The funds that Oxfam receives from donors remain in its coffers, to be allocated to a partner’s intended programme.
Daily Maverick spoke to community partners in the Eastern Cape, Free State, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal who claimed that since Ramafoko’s appointment as executive director, support had been withdrawn for a number of programmes that were planned and approved by donors before she came to office.
“Programmes that we started or initiated within the communities have been scrapped or funding withheld, staff members had their responsibilities curtailed, basically no work is happening whether in partnership with stakeholders or communities,” read the media release for Monday’s protest.
All the partner organisations Daily Maverick that spoke to claimed there had been no formal communication from OZA regarding the termination of their projects, nor reasons given for the termination or withdrawal of services and funding. The partners said the abrupt withdrawal of OZA’s support profoundly affected the communities in which they work.
Sibusiso Owen Ndidi, the provincial coordinator at the Eastern Cape Environmental Network (Ecen) — one of Oxfam’s partners in the province, which advocates for environmental justice — told Daily Maverick that OZA had been funding its oil and gas campaigns and climate change programmes. Oxfam South Africa had also supported and funded Ecen’s pickets and campaigns against Shell’s plans to conduct a seismic survey off the Wild Coast last year.
However, since April, OZA’s support for Ecen’s activism and public participation programmes had diminished, without any formal communication from the organisation, said Ndidi.
“We have been partnering with Oxfam SA for about five years, and we have never experienced what we are experiencing currently. If there was any change of strategy in terms of how Oxfam SA is doing things, it should’ve informed all of its partners on the new direction it’s taking and how things will be done from now on.”
Ndidi said that Oxfam SA’s sudden termination or withdrawal of funding for Ecen’s community programmes that were planned and fundraised for in advance had “crippled” the organisation.
“In the last two months, we were supposed to call for some community participation with the local communities and small-scale fish farmers along the coast. We couldn’t do that because of the challenges Oxfam currently faces,” said Ndidi, adding that without OZA’s support, Ecen’s community members would be unable to participate in several public engagements in August.
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“Public participation is a very important process in terms of decision-making processes, and once communities are not part of that it means that decisions will be taken on their behalf and they will be the ones that are experiencing the negative impact of the results,” he added.
Ndidi explained that his team was supposed to return to communities to inform them about updates in the Shell court case, but those plans were “at a standstill”.
Nomvula Qola, from the Alfred Nzo District in the Eastern Cape, who is the project manager at Holekane Women’s Support Organisation, an Oxfam partner, said the organisation had various programmes on gender-based violence (GBV) lined up for this financial year.
“Those had to be put on standstill because the new leadership decided, without even notifying us formally, that they would no longer participate in that programme,” she said.
“The communities that we work in are very vulnerable and poor communities. So with the programmes that Oxfam was bringing in, especially for women, they were bringing hope. With the stopping of the programmes people have lost hope, they’ve got nowhere to go to because the only NGO that was assisting us around here was Oxfam,” she said.
In the memorandum handed to Oxfam at Monday’s protest, Oxfam South Africa community organisation partners and project stakeholders also raised concerns over unpaid services.
There were “frustrations experienced” in the execution of a programme in Mbizana in the Alfred Nzo District in the Eastern Cape, “that service providers have been left unpaid, whereas the programme was budgeted for by donors,” read the memorandum.
Francina Nkosi, from the Waterberg Women Advocacy Organisation — an Oxfam partner in Limpopo — told Daily Maverick that before April, the Waterberg Women Advocacy Organisation had been “fully supported” by OZA.
She said OZA had supported the organisation in capacity-building with women in rural communities, through holding workshops on gender justice and climate justice, looking at the impacts of mining, climate change and gender-based violence in the area.
“This year we heard their support went directly to other big NGOs. That alarmed us as Oxfam South Africa was promoting the bottom-up approach, and now it has changed in that they now work together with the bigger NGOs — and us as locals, we are invitees,” she said.
In addition to the concerns raised by partners, Daily Maverick has heard allegations — from sources at Oxfam SA — of victimisation and intimidation within the organisation, since the appointment of the new executive director.
“People are not even comfortable speaking on their phones because they are so scared of facing backlash. That is the culture that [Ramafoko] has brought to the organisation,” an employee, who has been at the organisation for more than five years, told Daily Maverick.
“We’ve worked very hard to have an open-door policy, but recently that has not been the case. People are shaking. People are scared,” they said.
Another staff member said that since Ramafoko’s appointment, a number of changes had been made — including the relocation of Oxfam SA’s offices to the Soul City premises in Killarney, Johannesburg — without proper consultation with staff or reasoning provided.
Concerns have been raised over the relationship between the two organisations and the agreement for the sharing of office space.
Oxfam South Africa’s communications manager, Gail Smith, has told City Press that the organisation was aware of the “smear campaign that was being waged against Ramafoko” and that Oxfam’s information was being “leaked” to the media and partner organisations.
In response to questions from Daily Maverick, Smith said that under its new executive director, OZA was “restructuring and improving a number of its programmes and operational procedures”.
“OZA’s new executive team had found a number of weak controls in the organisation’s procedures. The executive team has initiated an independent audit in order to frame the consequential steps ahead in further strengthening its business practices,” she said.
“OZA has not terminated, suspended or changed the terms and conditions of any partner organisations that have formal and established contracts with it. OZA has instead temporarily frozen a small number of informal relationships with some community groups while the audit is under way; these relationships may be recommenced if and when they are formalised by contract.”
Daily Maverick has seen several requests made to OZA by concerned partners for an urgent meeting with Oxfam South Africa’s board of directors, its executive director and its project managers. Requests have also been made to Oxfam International for assistance.
However, repeated calls for engagement on the issues appear to have fallen on deaf ears, with partners alleging that requests for a meeting were refused by Ramafoko and Oxfam board member Phelisa Nkomo.
In response to questions about the alleged lack of consultation, Smith said: “OZA understands that change can be difficult and acknowledges concerns expressed by some staff and partners; however, these changes are necessary to ensure that all of OZA’s operations and procedures are secure and reliable.
“OZA commits to improve how it will engage in consultation ahead with all its staff and partner organisations, in order to foster a positive collaboration to make these changes successful.”
Oxfam South Africa did not respond to Daily Maverick’s questions relating to the allegations of the victimisation and intimidation of staff members, Oxfam’s relationship with Soul City, nor the accusations that requests for a meeting with the organisation’s partners were met with refusal by Ramafoko and Nkomo.
Oxfam International responded to Daily Maverick through Smith at OZA saying, “The Oxfam International Secretariat is supportive of OZA management and staff in resolving these issues.” DM
This article was updated to clarify Oxfam international’s response.