Defend Truth


NGOs and the state can do better in supporting communities – a civil leader’s perspective


Masibulele Zonyana is an aspiring leader-scholar-activist from Gugulethu. He uses both his working and academic experience to research and facilitate discussions on the state of the black family, leadership and institutions.

The big non-governmental organisations must improve their current frameworks to include resource sharing and capacity building of the community-based organisations dealing with the more day-to-day issues on the ground.

It is well known that South Africa has never had a governing state that was able to adequately take care of the majority of its citizens. 

During apartheid, when the governing state was able to adequately take care of its most important minority from a racial-capitalism perspective, the neglected majority heavily relied on themselves in various ways. However, attempts at organising for their own sustainable development were continuously and most times successfully squashed by the apartheid state. 

This negatively influenced South Africa’s ability to establish effective and efficient non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a civil society that could cater for the interests of the majority.

For instance, John Saul and Patrick Bond, in their book South Africa – the present as history: from Mrs Ples to Mandela and Marikana, briefly trace attempts to organise against apartheid. They find that many civil society organisations at the time were 1) focused on the fight against apartheid as a system of oppression, and 2) through their leadership ended up being absorbed by or heavily aligned to political parties after 1994. 

Chief among the organisations they count are the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco) and others that were part of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s. This was a period that symbolises the epitome of civil society strength and potential in South Africa. But by the time democratic South Africa was born, none of these organisations was as organised, independent and effective as it had been, since many of their leaders had joined mainstream politics and government structures.

NGOs and civil society after 1994: a narrow focus on national accountability 

In terms of post-apartheid NGOs and civil society’s impact, none is celebrated like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a civil society organisation widely heralded for “securing a universal government-provided Aids treatment programme, which has since become the world’s largest”, through its campaign and Constitutional Court victory against the government. 

Yet, with the dismantling of the UDF as the central and strong coordinator of civil society organisations, along with the absorption of leaders from specific NGOs such as Sanco, a vicious circle of civil society and NGO dependence on the state and the politically connected was successfully created by the ANC government. As a result, the TAC’s ability to organise outside this vicious circle was both surprising and important for the majority. 

However, it quickly resulted in a vicious circle of its own. 

In my view it led to civil society and NGO success being measured in terms of how well they could hold the state, mainly at a national level, accountable to the Constitution. 

This becomes clearer when one considers the other big, relatively well-resourced civil society organisations that have sprung up after the TAC, such as SECTION27, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), Open Secrets, AfriForum and Equal Education, to mention a few. One of the clearest things they have in common is how their framework of operation seems to be influenced by the TAC’s approach – that is, they are mainly known for their abilities and attempts to hold the national government accountable. 

From my own involvement at the local government level, where much of the extortion issues around business forums occur, I can confidently say the government has no plan on how to deal with extortion.

The question though is: how much of this framework addresses the everyday challenges of the majority? 

In particular there is an issue of how well-funded, structured and resourced these organisations are relative to community-based organisations (CBOs) whose work is much closer to the majority of people and their everyday challenges. 

This begs the question: whose interests are truly served by such big, post-1994 NGOs when neither their main work nor their representation correlate with those of the majority.

The continuous decaying of our societal fabric 

When we consider CBOs within the broader confines of civil society, and how they have been contributing to local development, we find they are hindered by more than financial resources – which seem to be the major challenge of the nationally and narrowly focused bigger NGOs that Sue Sager refers to when she asks: Are NGOs doing the work of the state? Should they? 

What do I mean? 

Well, how many of us follow the current challenges facing Abahlali baseMjondolo and the real, everyday challenges facing their communities and leaders, who have been targets of assassinations since at least 2018?

How many of us are making attempts to understand how to best help the many local business development forums, mainly seen as fronts for extortion in our townships? 

For instance, one of the critical things that business development forums do in the townships is to help local, mostly micro-entrepreneurs in ways that increase their access to information and networks – which have been found to be some of the key challenges facing SMMEs in the country. However, this is left out of the talks on business development forums, when most discuss the challenge of extortion. 

What is the government doing about these? What should be done? What does it all mean for NGOs and the state, and the work that they do?

From my own involvement at the local government level, where much of the extortion issues around business forums occur, I can confidently say the government has no plan on how to deal with extortion. Nor has it shown an ability to understand its causes, since extortion is a symptom of a bigger problem within these poor and neglected societies. 

This is also a finding of my master’s research on leadership, institutions and their interactions in dealing with SMME development and support in the City of Cape Town and the township of Gugulethu.

At best, the local government of Cape Town has shown a knee-jerk reaction limited to “beefing up security at construction sites”. But there are no signs of any attempts to understand the deeper issues that have led to such extreme extractive organisations, such as the ones linked to extortion. 

Importantly, there is not a single highly regarded NGO or civil society organisation trying to work on this gap.   

Meanwhile, given the list of community issues they deal with, and their proximity to areas affected by challenges such as extortion, I would argue that with better support Abahlali baseMjondolo and other organisations at local level could come up with better ways of dealing with these challenges and their causes. 

Is there any relevant authority that could understand the current and potential impact of these organisations if they were to receive help beyond just more financial resources? 

For one, I once asked Hennie van Vuuren, the director of Open Secrets, about what they were doing to help capacitate township organisations operating within their spaces of interest, during a wonderful guest lecture he gave at UCT’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance on their work on State Capture in 2022. 

He agreed there was a gap but said Open Secrets was currently not focusing on such an important activity. 

What should be done?

Players in this space need to revisit the importance of finding common ground, and pool their resources in order to work for the whole of sustainable development of their common stakeholder: the poor majority. 

For me, this is to say that NGOs like Open Secrets, Outa and SECTION27 need not necessarily change their approach and framework. Rather, they need to improve it through ensuring that it incorporates a deliberate intent and approach of pulling up some of the CBOs doing the groundwork. Particularly, the CBOs must not be at the same level, nor driven by the same Western ideologies of development as the big NGOs might be. For instance, Dambisa Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, finds that in recent times the West has used aid through its various channels, including funding for NGOs, to try to influence the political systems of developing countries, and this has not worked to develop such countries. 

Essentially, the big NGOs must improve their current frameworks to include resource sharing and capacity building of the CBOs dealing with the more day-to-day issues on the ground. 

On the other hand, the state could help through a series of developmental dialogues with the many CBOs, anchored by the acknowledgement that they need each other, and then working through how they might help each other achieve the sustainable development of the majority South Africans, beyond financing. 

Essentially, the state can start helping by inviting the CBOs to present themselves and what they do, with the promise of listening and asking more questions before committing to help with other things. DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    The ANC-led state is the enemy of communities and has made this abundantly clear by its marginalisation of the poor, civics, CBO, NGOs and almost every network that cares. Even INGO’s have trouble doing dialogue with the SA state.

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