By Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Inyathelo Executive Director
The late Nelson Mandela repeatedly acknowledged the critical role civil society played in securing South Africa's democracy During and after his term as the country's first black, democratically elected president, he continued to stress the vital and ongoing need for a strong and independent sector - which filled the spaces between the state, market and family - to protect the rights of all citizens and hold government to account.
And yet, civil society organisations are facing unprecedented challenges to their existence in our maturing democratic society Like- wise, independent state institutions established to defend our democracy like the Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Gender Equality, the Public Protector and the Auditor-General appear weakened and vulnerable as we enter our third decade of freedom. Government support has decreased, interna- tional donor funding is no longer secure and there is a continuous drain on the leadership pool.
So, while we welcome the moratorium on the deregistration of non-profit organisations (NPOs) announced recently by Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, civil society remains concerned that the government is not doing enough to actively support NPOs.
The Department of Social Development (DSD) has stated that over half of the 140 513 registered NPOs have failed to submit annual finan- cial reports as required by the NPO Act. Yet, many of the organisations that were deregistered had in fact submitted all the required documents, some more than once. It begs the question: does the DSD have suf- ficient capacity to receive and process reports being submitted?
This year, which Minister Dlamini has declared the year of NPOs, provides an excellent oppor- tunity for those of us in civil society to engage with government on rebuilding our sector. South Africa will soon be taking up the reins as chair of the Open Government Part- nership (OGP). We would like to see the government taking advantage of this position to showcase and promote a positive and supportive relationship with civil society
The OGP was launched in 2011 with South Africa as one of the eight founding members. The OGP is meant to "provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable and responsive to citizens". It is also meant to "bring together govern- ments and civil society organism tions as true partners at both the national and international level - a model that embodies the goal of civic participation".
But will those who challenge government be invited to the table?
I hope that, as stated, our government will take a developmental approach to addressing the administrative difficulties relating to NPO compliance. Over the past decade, Inyathelo has played a key role in building the advancement capacity of thousands of non-profits as well as growing a strong philanthropic movement to ensure the financial sustainability of the sector.
With the establishment of the Civil Society Sustainability Centre in Woodstock, Cape Town, Inyathelo is able to assist many more non-profits and higher education institu- tions, as well as nurture new ideas and fledgling organisations that are being formed in response to the changing needs and threats to social justice in South Africa.
We are a country of acute differences, and have emerged from a history of conflict and deep division, mainly based on race, class and gender. To overcome this, we need to create an environment that encourages all sectors of our society, including universities, business and government, to find a workable ecosystem that dramatically improves the current status quo.
We created a massive resistance to apartheid and won. This legacy reminds us of our power; we saw it when South Africa was faced by the HIV/ Aids policy crisis. We can come together again to rebuild the move- ments and civil society organism tions that play an essential role in sustaining and strengthening our democracy.