A call to action: A strategic role for philanthropy in South Africa

By Audrey Elster – Executive Director of the RAITH Foundation, South Africa

While the social unrest and violence that made media headlines have largely disappeared from the radar, these upheavals are a reminder that philanthropy has an urgent and important role to play to keep the issues that fuelled the unrest on the agenda, and to contribute to finding solutions.

Much has been written, in recent months, about the social unrest and violence which took place in South Africa in July this year.  These incidents of unrest, though, are not new and have become notably more frequent in recent years.  They are also not unique to South Africa, but a common form of protest around the world, as levels of inequality grow, and people are further marginalized from opportunities to improve their lives.

What was new in the most recent upheavals in post-apartheid South Africa was the scale of the unrest; the focus of the riots in two of our major cities and its suburbs; and the number of people who lost their lives and livelihoods. What was also new, was the fact that the unrest was now on the doorstep of the wealthy and middle class and apparently, could no longer be ignored. However, three months down the line, we appear to be doing just that.  At the time, there was a sudden sense of urgency and enquiry as to the why and what could be done, this urgency and enquiry have largely dissipated. Philanthropy has a role to play in keeping these issues at the forefront of national debates and of contributing to a solution-oriented agenda.

While we should all have been concerned for a long time that such inequality exists in our society, without the stark reminder that social unrest brings, this is sadly, not the case.  What we can all agree on, perhaps, is that extreme levels of inequality that currently exist in South Africa, are unsustainable and, at the very least, not in our common interest.  While many of us may wish to ‘go back to normal’, this is to bury our heads in the sand, to passively stand by while people suffer and their opportunities for a better life – to contribute to building a better country where we all share in the success – will never be realized. Doing something to change the status quo, is then a necessity and not a choice, especially for those of us who are most privileged. The long-term risk of doing nothing, especially when we have the wherewithal to do something, are greater than any perceived risks of getting involved.

There are many resources available to better understand South Africa’s most recent history and what involvement in improving equality and equity could look like. However, one such resource, that talks specifically to the role of philanthropy and the privately funded non-profit (NPO) sector, is the RAITH Foundation-supported 25 Year Review of Social Justice in South Africa.  This report provides a timely reminder of some of the key historical and ongoing reasons for the most recent unrest and upheaval in South Africa. It attributes the worsening crisis of inequality to various socio-economic factors including a major shift in government policy, from the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy which was introduced in 1997.

Most notably, for philanthropy, a 2021 report from ELMA Philanthropies and the RAITH Foundation which will be published shortly, also traces the weakening of the social justice NPO sector during the early part of this period, primarily through recruitment of talent and experience to the state and private sector, the widely held perception that a legitimate state would deliver and a decrease in funding to the NPO sector, as resources from international bi-lateral funders, were channelled to the state.

The report describes how one of the key roles of the NPO sector had been to hold the apartheid government accountable, to build and defend institutions and to empower communities. Some of the most effective strategies employed then, included the mobilisation of communities, independent and investigative journalism, and the use of litigation.  As the NPO sector stepped back from these roles, particularly in the earlier period post 1994, it is significant that the situation has gone from bad to worse for the poorest and most marginalised in our society. Not only did they not have access to the means to improve their lives, no longer did they even had a voice to express their frustration and growing anger.  As a result, increasingly violent and frequent episodes of unrest have shaped our recent history; they are also often described as the only form of protest available to marginalized communities.

An earlier paper written in 2013 by the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) on the Social Justice Sector in South Africa  concluded that, despite the many important developments, “South Africa resembles less and less the society imagined in the Constitution, a non-racial democracy where all citizens have more or less equal access to goods and services”. The warning signs have been with us for a while.  The longer we fail to take decisive action, the worse the situation becomes and not just for the poor.

So, what can philanthropy do to contribute to the reimagining of the country as it was envisaged in our much-lauded and hard-fought-for Constitution? With its limited resources, particularly in comparison to Government and business, philanthropy has, in recent years, opted out of trying to influence macro level change in the country, instead choosing to alleviate the burden of the poor in the short term by providing free schooling, health care, food and even clothing.  Given the obvious inadequacy of Government to provide these basic services, this is understandable. But, in the medium term, it also allows the Government to opt out of its responsibilities and in the longer term it does little to alleviate the deepening crisis we face.

Envisioning a role for philanthropy now and for the future, it is worth reflecting on what worked well in the past: holding those in power to account through advocacy, independent media and, where necessary, litigation and most importantly, working with the most marginalized communities to ensure they have a voice and are part of the solutions to the challenges the country faces – challenges that they bear the brunt of.

Recent, IPASA-hosted, seminars on social justice have focused practically on what philanthropy should be supporting to bring about fundamental, sustainable change for a more socially just country.  Examples given included advocacy and policy work around balancing the need to alleviate food hunger with an investment in food security, which is a longer-term solution to food hunger in the country.  Food security approaches include supporting local food production and food distribution, as opposed to supporting feeding schemes and food parcels.  An investment in these long-term food security solutions obviates the need for ongoing food handouts, returns the dignity to people, provides employment and builds local, more resilient economies.  It also provides a sustainable supply of affordable, healthier food to poor families, especially those with children who run the risk of malnutrition which, as we know, can have a devastating impact on their development and educational outcomes.

In the IPASA seminars on social justice, philanthropists also spoke more broadly of the strategic and impactful role philanthropy can play, thereby ensuring that a robust scaffolding is in place which ensures that Government’s fundamental role as, for example, the provider of quality education and health, especially to the poorer sections of our society, can be enforced and rolled out. This scaffolding includes a strong judiciary, an independent and robust media, a responsive and appropriate policy environment (including social safety nets) and an active and fully engaged citizenry.

It may be hard to imagine that philanthropy, with its limited investment, can bring about this kind of fundamental change. However, recent history tells us otherwise: “While it is not possible to conclude exactly where South Africa would have been at this point without an active Social Justice Sector, there is a broad recognition of crucial role the Social Justice Sector has played in holding political parties, the different arms of the state – and to a lesser extent – corporate entities, accountable. And in doing so, the sector has pulled South Africa back from the precipice with regards to corruption and state capture.”

To date the social justice sector and the philanthropy that supports it, has played an important role in holding back a further weakening of the state.  It is time now for philanthropy to play a more constructive role. An organised and strategically focused civil society brought about the end of apartheid. It is safe to say, it can play a major role in advancing the kind of country we all hoped for in 1994.  To do this, it will need the support of philanthropy and other private, social investors.

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