The NGO sector has recently been on the receiving end of an itinerant lynch mob of virtue-signalling competitors in what seems an orgy of schadenfreude.
In contrast NGOs and specific individuals are hamstrung in defence because any response would be conflated with toleration of isolated and indefensible occurrences at a few NGOs.
That a victim-centredness should inform our approach to allegations of abuse remains uncontested; nor that human rights organisations be held to a higher standard of conduct. The problem lies in the gross generalisations and exaggerations that seek to paint the NGO sector as a cesspit of sexual predators, narcissistic powerful men running exclusive cabals, highly paid activists carving out life-long careers for themselves, and who use ordinary members or activists as cannon-fodder.
All this is uniformly framed under a broad, nebulous, pejorative rubric labelled ‘toxic culture” – attributed largely to left-leaning NGOs. Undoubtedly some of this is as accurate as a broken clock twice a day. Undoubtedly individuals working in progressive NGO’s reflect society’s mix of cultures, norms and practices and are not immune from indiscretions, egotistical behaviour and dishonesty.
Perhaps there’s a certain personality type that is attracted to politics and activism – where competing traits need to be balanced to maximum effect or else they become destructive. While patriarchy remains a serious problem, women-led NGOs are not immune from such behaviours, as I have witnessed.
Perhaps the problem lies with power, and the solution lies in fettering and limiting such power through democratic practice. However, neither the nature of the world, nor that of political activism follows a pure, linear trajectory without contradiction, contestation and uneven development. For that elusive search one will have to seek out a fundamentalist religious cult.
Social movements are built through a messy dialectic, melding together various competing constituencies through difficult democratic processes. However when unethical behaviour is revealed, or when there really is a pervasive toxic culture, the public’s other civil society leaders must do the right thing and call it out whenever and wherever it occurs. More importantly however is to engage, advise, guide and assist these organisations, recognising that many such NGOs consist of youth who require mentoring, not blanket condemnation.
My affinity for the NGO sector began with my career in an NGO that provided essential, non-existent services to the progressive trade union movement. As a recently graduated doctor in the 1980s this space permitted an activism that combined my professional and political commitments in servicing and empowering an exploited working class – where health considerations were sacrificed at the altar of profits. The consequences are now apparent in the epidemics of asbestos and silica related diseases, but less apparent in unrecognised and undiagnosed diseases.
There were not many takers for such jobs, which paid less than half of private sector salaries. But then it wasn’t a job, but a personal, professional and political commitment. Professors Jonny Myers, Leslie London, Mohammed Jeebhay, Rajen Naidoo and Dr Fareed Abdullah chose similar career paths.
Remarkably the latter three formed part of my graduating class at the University of Natal Medical School, sharing similar political commitments. At least four of those who began careers with humble beginnings are today professors at major universities, still committed to a progressive agenda.
This part biographical sketch is meant to illustrate a simple point – that NGOs attract skilled individuals committed to progressive causes at great personal sacrifice. Furthermore NGOs serve to incubate future leaders. Since those early beginnings my continuous involvement in NGOs has exposed me to the most remarkable individuals who give selflessly in pursuit of a better society.
Individuals of all races, genders, and education levels display the highest levels of integrity, skill, commitment and intelligence in organising, empowering and mobilising the public in ensuring intersectional social justice. Most recognise that theirs is not a day job, but a commitment that demands weekends and evenings to be sacrificed. Some highly qualified post-graduates would readily find lucrative jobs in the open markets; others organically emerge through similar commitments, opportunity and skills and achieve similar levels of marketability. For most of them working in the NGO sector is a choice. The leadership of most of these organisations are highly sensitive to issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, and disparity in education levels.
In our broken, grotesquely unequal and multiply wounded society these NGOs have been the glue that enormously contributes to our society’s continued integrity and survival, and provide much needed hope. Some have provided relief while others ensure that the vision of our constitution is realised for the poor through organisation, empowerment, mobilisation, legal recourse and negotiation. The failure of our government has made the work of these NGOs indispensable. These NGOs have built non-racial, cross-class coalitions, creating counter civil power to state power in a quest for constitutional rights. In fact the need for services, to expose corruption and ensure fundamental rights is so dire that we need many more NGOs to do this critical work.
We need to up-scale and multiply the work of #UnitedBehind, Equal Education, SJC, Ndifuna Ukwazi, Sonke Gender Justice, Section 27, TAC and remarkable media such as amaBungane and Scorpio. Thus when the lynch mobs on social media, the social climbing commentariat, and some tabloidish print media launch unrelenting attacks on progressive NGOs, it not only undermines the morale of these committed individuals, but also compromises the valuable work that these groups engage in.
Of course dealing with such attacks is part of leadership development. But attacking NGOs is never the same as attacking corrupt politicians or businesses. The standards of journalistic integrity should be the same; however NGOs are far more vulnerable to false accusations than others who have some degree of immunisation. NGOs are fragile and entirely dependent on funding from donors, who have a heightened sensitivity to reputational damage. Thus unfair attacks on NGOs threaten their very existence with consequences for the very poor and marginalised. Thus a greater responsibility is demanded when reporting – not censorship, a free pass, or spiking a story – simply ethical and responsible journalism.
The notion of journalistic integrity is rapidly becoming a parody and the notion of journalistic independence a predictable mask. Of course some will hysterically read censorship into this, which it clearly is not. A typical timeline is where a disaffected individual feeds a rumour to a journalist, who proceeds to construct a narrative, and then continues through the ruse of requesting comment from the ‘accused’.
The latter is provided an extremely constrained time frame to respond. The journalist then selectively quotes from the response to suit the predetermined narrative, and publishes. After being called out for deliberately publishing a falsehood a previously respected paper re-edited the published article without the required footnote. To paraphrase a respectable journalist: to understand a lie, it is necessary to understand how it is framed, the subtle grammar of untruth, and how the liar in the shape of an objective journalist appeals to publics as acting in their interest. And to repeat this often enough subtly affords it a veneer of truth. Repetition of a few known facts, and a large unknown body of facts, seems sufficient to create front page stories in some papers oblivious of consequences.
Judge Nugent’s said last week at the SARS inquiry: ‘conspiracies are easier and easier to construct the fewer facts you have. They become more and more difficult the more facts you have, it trammels you into a corner”. But some media are not into facts, or detailed, painstaking, time-consuming investigation. They rather prefer shorthand phrasing, cutting corners, writing stories remotely without understanding or engaging with content and context, willing to forfeit accuracy for a quick story, and chasing a quick story lacking disciplined argumentation. The paint with a broad brush what are seriously nuanced and complex issues – meme version of political commentary.
Random quotes from a variety of disaffected, and sometimes sincere individuals, provides the necessary ‘evidence’ or balance. Understandably some of these media peddle sensationalism to enhance readership in order to survive. In the age of fake news, victims have little redress, or where apologies are tendered it is in an obscure space which does little to reverse the reputational damage suffered.
A case in point is Equal Education, an NGO that has done remarkable work since its formation to ensure the most fundamental right, necessary for our country’s advancement, is realised. My view is that it has decisively dealt with the issues around sexual harassment within the organisation, including a process resulting in the resignation of senior two staff members. EE’s national congress has extensively focused its agenda on these issues – in addition to, or at the expense of other issues. The issues of 2011 were dealt with reasonably at the time – based on the policy that existed, that the entire HR committee constituted the panel, and there was no formal complainant. These are the facts of the matter. Yet the narrative that is constantly peddled is one of a “cover-up” or a “toxic culture” within the organisation.
These clichés are opportunistically recycled in order to substitute for fact. This is a rather unfair characterisation of an incident that occurred seven years ago. With hindsight should it have been dealt with differently? Perhaps, but one can only guess the prevailing circumstances at the time. Should an inquiry now be instituted to investigate alleged past oversights – definitely, and thoroughly and expeditiously to protect all those involved. No doubt the issues of patriarchy, power, predatory behaviour, and sexual harassment were clearly demarcated, as were issues of consent and agency of women/men. Right and wrong is always evident.
However issues of cisheteropatriarchy, heteronormative assumptions, micro-aggressions and decoloniality were in formative stages. That is not meant to excuse any past behaviour or standards, but simply to reflect on the changing lenses and mores we employ. A friend and my favourite priest said to me when I called for counsel in dealing with the angst around this issue: “Twenty years ago we viewed issues through a large window; about ten years ago through a smaller window; now we scrutinise issues and are scrutinised through a microscope.” This evolutionary trend is to be embraced, as we seek to create fairer and more egalitarian societies, particular by human rights NGOs. It forces us to recalibrate our behaviours and expectations and raise the bar for us all.
Notwithstanding the negativity generated and questionable conduct of some in the media, the events of the past few months serves a salutary lesson to all NGOs, who are forced to confront these issues within their organisations, and importantly to ensure that the environments we create in our operating spaces reflect the egalitarian ethos we strive for in society. DM
Shuaib Manjra is a social activist, and Chairperson of Ndifuna Ukwazi. He is also on the Council of UCT, on the Board of the SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport, on the Board of the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, the Chairman of the Medical Committees of Cricket SA and the International Netball Federation. He writes in his personal capacity.