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.  

Tragic risks

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.

Grotesque failures

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.         

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Photo by Steve Knutson on Unsplash


  1. With respect Mr. John Kane-Berman.

    Truth be told, there are NPO’s and NPO’s.

    Nonprofit organizations are by far one of the biggest scandals in history. They are not only used to extract government funds, prey on citizens to donate, and act as fronts to slush funds, they are used for political agendas as well. NGO’s and Non-Profits are the useful idiots while the “Economic Corporate Elites”. They are part of the clerisy IMHO.

    As far as the MSM goes, They don’t live up to what they are suppose to do. Most of them are captured by the large and massive corporates to drive there agendas including the corporate created NPO’s & NGO’s.

    As far as the OECD goes that is another created tentacle of the socialist UN. Simply another agency of the Global Cabal that I wouldn’t wouldn’t touch with the end a barge-pole.

    I suspect some agenda … just saying.

  2. The eternal cynics, the eternal scoffers – I can’t agree with the above comments. JKB is right – there are good people and good organizations out there. Support them. (Sure the other kind is there also – but that’s always been the case, just avoid them …)

    • Agreed. Of course there will always be the posers, but there are good people working hard on behalf of the apathetic, uneducated or thoughtless who make up the masses. I’m so tired of the interminable refrain, “what can we do” and “it won’t help”. Everyone can do something, and everyone should join and support the civil society organisations that represent the fair interests of our shared future under the disastrous ANC dictatorship. In his book The Great Degeneration Niall Furguson was decrying the dwindling number of civil society organisations of recent years. I’m pleased to hear that this trend is being reversed, especially in a country such as ours where we so desperately need all of the active unity of purpose we can possibly sum up among the silent majority.

    • Well its simple name them who you think are then are “good” NGO’s or the Non Profits. Ask then the question who is behind them and who finances them. to whom is it a benefit?.
      The statement by JKB is a wild assertion. Therefore my statement there are NPO’s and NPO’s There are unfortunately too many scoundrels who hide behind a mask.

  3. Let’s then just salute the NPO’s that operate with integrity and real passion for people. I salute you NPO’s who fall in this latter category. To the ones that are in it for themselves and described as cruel, callous and depraved: may the worst kind of judgment fall on you, sooner rather than later. God is not asleep.

  4. how odd that in holocaust of hunger in cape town during covid when nearlty all the NPOs may have run out of funds and food for at LEAST 25% of the local cape flats for the most part the autor does not mention this .history is one thing but current also counts. we woud appeal to this author to help us with this project ..thank you
    Silence in the holocaust of hunger in cape town

    Imagine its the time of holocaust. You in live in free western europe and its a rumour at best .

    Thats what has happened in capetown . Hunger is only a rumour . It cannot be tackled until it becomes names of real people both working to alleviate it where it matters 24/7
    Real people who get up at 4am in a tin shack and start cooking fior 100s after scraping together some money for samp

    In the communities it exists
    But they have to be asked by the communities that have voices
    BecUse they dont have the means to speak

    Sorry but those who should be doong it are not

    History will reveal who they were but forget about that. But its not only poltiicians by any means

    Who IS going to give people that voice ? If i said my mind i would be crucified and thats pointless

    Taking into cogniscance that one person cannot take a mere rumour into the realm of reality

    Its beyond politics

    If you have food, interent and literacy and can do good zoom or audio interviews, and pay the costs to subsribe to the apps to make interviews recordable, write letters with clarity and can do independant self motivated research and want to help manifest this rumour into reality, one of the greatest tragedies of covid


  5. Agree absolutely with John above. I’ve been watching very carefully and have perhaps half a dozen that I support. If I notice any others doing what I deem to be good work I add them to my list. One also needs to be ready to assist in ones immediate community.


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