Where ignorance fears to tread.
26 March 2017 10:56 (South Africa)
Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow

State security and civil society in South Africa

  • Shelagh Gastrow
    Shelagh-Gastrow.jpg
    Shelagh Gastrow

    Shelagh Gastrow is a director of GastrowBloch Philanthropies, a philanthropy advisory service that helps individuals and families integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work in philanthropy has gained public recognition locally and internationally.  

There are disconcerting parallels between recent remarks by security minister David Mahlobo and the laws and habits of other Brics countries regarding NGOs wishing to operate in those territories.

According to #NGOfacts, as of 2015 there were 136-453 registered nongovernnmental organisations (NGOs) in South Africa. On average, 68 new NGOs are registered every day. The list of organisations registered with the Non Profit Organisation Directorate reflects a wide range of organisational types including voluntary associations based on membership, trusts, and nonprofit companies. Other grant-making entities such as charitable trusts and foundations are also deemed nonprofit organisations.

It is against this backdrop that South African Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, expressed his view that there were citizens and NGOs collaborating with external “forces” to undermine and destabilise South Africa. He pointed out that the government “would not be shy” in dealing with them. He acknowledged the role NGOs played in the struggle, but indicated that there were entities masquerading as NGOs but which were just “security agents that are being used for covert operations.”

He charged that some of these organisations were funding student protests. He added that similar entities were active across the world in various countries and that they exist within the mass media, community-based organisations and included individuals who funded opposition parties.

This is not the first time that senior government officials have attacked civil society organisations and those that support them. The names of those allegedly subverting our democracy are never revealed but we can explore what has happened in other Brics countries to get an idea of the kind of dialogue government (and ANC by default) is engaged in.

Three of our partner Brics countries have developed quite draconian legislation relating to the funding of civil society organisations. India introduced the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) which contributed to significant conflict and friction between the government and civil society. Even though the amounts provided to Indian organisations by foreign funders were not particularly significant, the government has clamped down. Ironically, most of the money has been for rural development, education and health rather than human rights and advocacy.

A strange list of organisations are now barred from receiving international support. These include the Supreme Court Bar Association, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Delhi and hospitals such as Escorts Heart Institute. The one organisation that received a great deal of attention was Greenpeace India which had all its bank accounts frozen.

Many of us will remember Julius Malema’s vicious attack on a BBC reporter, calling him a “foreign agent”. Well, that was definitely good old Soviet thinking. In Russia today, civil society is regulated by the Regulation of the Activities of Nonprofit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent law that was passed in 2012. This requires that civil society organisations that receive international funding and engage in “political activity” register and pronounce themselves as “foreign agents”. When they have registered as foreign agents, these organisations have to indicate on any statements they make that the views are provided by a foreign agent.

The terminology has very negative connotations and is clearly used to subject opposition groups to humiliation. On occasions, raids by government officials have been accompanied by cameras from the state TV station. In 2014, the law was amended so that the justice ministry could register any independent entity as a foreign agent without its consent, if the ministry deemed that it was involved in “political activity” and if it was receiving international funds. As a result, well-known international organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International have been raided and their documents confiscated.

In addition to the international organisations mentioned above, local organisations such as GOLOS, an independent election monitoring organisation, was fined and suspended for six months. Police raided its offices and employees’ homes and removed equipment. Another organisation, the Levade Centre, an independent polling agency, may be forced to close. Others that have closed include the Dynasty Foundation, a well-known research and education organisation.

South Africans have clear constitutional rights in terms of Section 18 which guarantees freedom of association. However, the Russian constitution also has articles that protect freedom of speech and the right to participate in governance. But these were not seen as barriers to this legislation.

Our third Brics partner, China, also believes that foreign NGOs and some local organisations are a threat to the government and the ruling party. China has recently approved a new law that gives security forces control over foreign organisations working in the country. Many of these are active in the human rights sector, but some are involved in the environmental, public health and education sectors.

The law is viewed as a way to control both foreign NGOs and local entities by making it extremely difficult for the two to engage with each other.

This new law will come into effect early in 2017 and, as in India and Russia, any entity wishing to operate in China must register, but this time with public security. The law enables authorities to ban any organisation found to have “violated Chinese regulations” and foreign organisations’ bank accounts have to be registered with public security.

Chinese activists say this clampdown is the worst since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. It is clear that there is intolerance of independent organisations, both international and local. Like our Minister of State Security, China believes that foreign governments are using civil society organisations to undermine the ruling party and the country.

Where does that leave us as we align ourselves with the Brics agenda? At present South Africa has a remarkably free civil society, but it is incumbent on us to be vigilant when we hear a security minister offer opinion that threatens our capacity to organise ourselves. DM

  • Shelagh Gastrow
    Shelagh-Gastrow.jpg
    Shelagh Gastrow

    Shelagh Gastrow is a director of GastrowBloch Philanthropies, a philanthropy advisory service that helps individuals and families integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work in philanthropy has gained public recognition locally and internationally.  

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles





Do Not Miss

Daily Maverick has suspended comments on the site. Until the interwebs figures out a better way to deal with the naughty kids in the class, the space for your comments is on our Facebook page and the Twitterverse.

Alternatively, you are welcome to send a letter to the editor.