When the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, one of the things that impressed him most was the ‘immense assemblage’ of ‘civil associations’ – which neither France nor Britain had.
A few years later he wrote in his celebrated book Democracy in America that citizens had established thousands of different kinds of such organisations. They had also set up a vast number of political associations to defend themselves against the ‘despotic influence of a majority’, although these were not as numerous as the civil associations.
If a latter-day De Tocqueville were to visit South Africa he would be equally impressed by the multitude of what we now call non-profit organizations (NPOs) in civil society. There was a vast array prior to 1994, but the most recent figures show that in 2015/2016 nearly 154 000 NPOs were registered with the Department of Social Development. Most are involved in social services, development, housing, health, culture, recreation, research, or education, with almost 4 000 active in various types of advocacy and vigilance.
Some of this last group cut their teeth opposing apartheid, and continued their vigilance after 1994. A range of NPOs are now playing as vigorous a role as the official opposition in scrutinising the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Inter alia, they have challenged some of the ‘modelling’ used to make predictions, they have provided powerful critiques of lockdown regulations, and they have gone to court in efforts to overturn some of these.
A necessary counterweight
Vigilant opposition MPs and NPOs, making use of various types of communications media, are providing a necessary counterweight to attempts by the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) to use the Covid-19 crisis to augment and entrench their powers of ‘command’.
NPOs are also helping to feed an ever-increasing number of hungry people, sometimes having to fight the government to be able to do so, as this column noted last week. Funding comes from private individuals, the national lottery, the private sector, and aid agencies. Last year, according to a study published by Trialogue, corporate social investment (CSI) spending amounted to R10.2 billion. Education accounts for half of this, and food security and agriculture for 9%. Paul Pereira of CSI Consultancy WHAM! Media warns, however, that CSI spending – usually derived from 1% of after-tax profits – will ‘crash’ when profits plunge because of South Africa’s ‘economic meltdown’.
Another significant funder of NPOs is the National Lotteries Commission. ‘High Net Worth Individuals’ gave R6.1 billion to NPOs in 2018. Many other individuals also give. The Charities Aid Foundation found that 61% of people surveyed contributed money, food, or goods in kind. But giving by individuals to food (and other) programmes run by NPOs may also drop as the economic crisis cuts personal disposable incomes.
These tragic risks underline the importance of the National School Nutrition Programme, which feeds some 9.2 million schoolgoing children, for most of whom it is the only substantial meal of the day, but which was suspended when the lockdown started. It beggars belief that it was actually necessary to haul the government to court to obtain an order for it to do its statutory duty and re-instate this successful and essential programme, the country’s second biggest after social grants.
This should not be. Unlike most others, our Constitution is chock-a-block with guaranteed socio-economic ‘rights’. Supposedly to turn law into reality, we have a large and well-paid public sector.
According to a report issued last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the government’s wage bill consumes 12% of GDP, against an OECD average of less than 10%. The top managers in the South African civil service earn salaries nine times as high as GDP per head, against an OECD average of six times. In the last decade, after-inflation remuneration per head in the public sector has risen by 3.1% a year. In purchasing-power-parity terms, South African public sector managers earn as much as their Norwegian counterparts.
So, even by the standards of the richest countries in the world, our public servants are extraordinarily well paid. We should have the best such servants on the planet. Yet these are the people among whom thievery has long been second nature, as it has in the two ruling parties, so much so that not even the Covid-19 crisis gives them pause for a moment. Apart from the poor and the sick, they betray honest public servants, not least the men and women who put themselves at risk as they work in public hospitals.
The grotesque failures of the government make the role of the non-profit and charitable sector, and of the many selfless and courageous people who work within it, all the more important. In the first place, NPOs of various political persuasions, and some of none, are helping the poor and the sick: acts of human kindness that can reduce the misery among the destitute and save people from starvation. This help is also given by organisations that may not be registered as NPOs, as well as by private individuals and religious organisations.
Secondly, with the help of the media, NPOs are blowing the whistle against the cruelty, callousness, and depravity so prevalent among the ruling elites. Thirdly, they are providing as much oversight of the government as are opposition parliamentarians. Fourthly, they are using the courts to enforce rights and put a stop to malfeasance wherever they can. Fifthly, they are showing the country that things need not be the way the ANC and the SACP and their trade union allies want them to be.
De Tocqueville would have been horrified at what the ruling alliance has done to this country. But he would have been mightily impressed with what civil society is doing, often against enormous odds, to put things right.