Every time that this country’s non-profit part of civil society imagines that its independence is secured and respected by politicos, out they come to have another crack at subverting that independence.
Our constitution, often mistakenly called “the most liberal in the world”, guarantees freedom of association and thus also of disassociation. Try telling that to non-profit organisations (NPOs).
In the mid-Nineties there was a serious attempt by “development experts” to push for law that would have forced NPOs to submit to state oversight, including government being able to fire governing boards and appoint their own. It was defeated after rigorous NPO opposition.
In its place came the liberalising 1997 NPO Act, making registration of NPOs with the-then Department of Welfare (now Social Development – DSD) voluntary, reporting requirements less onerous, and removing the need for NPO fundraising numbers. All anyway work under common and other law, and NPOs that don’t register are excluded from state, lottery and most corporate funding.
But in January, the department claimed that only 29% of registered NPOs were fully compliant with reporting requirements, and deregistered 36 000 organisations. This has since been reversed, with NPOs having until end-March 2014 to get their affairs in order. Since then has been a government proposal to set up a monitoring SA Nonprofit Organisations Authority, and a related tribunal, to hunt for undefined “unscrupulous practices” in the sector.
Now, the Gauteng Department of Social Development has issued “guidelines” for the selection of NPO boards, guidelines that give it an overriding say in who should sit on these boards and how they should be selected. Confusingly referring to “boards of management” where boards are usually about oversight, the department wants NPOs to submit to board candidate screening committees that involve itself, municipalities, other NPOs doing similar work, undefined community representatives, and elected politicians. Acceptable candidates will helpfully be issued with government developmental policy guidelines.
Although given the opportunity, the department has not provided reasons for this intervention; nor said why a provincial department is involving itself in NPO oversight that is normally a national function; nor on what legal basis it proceeds. It is silent on whether it plans any sanctions against NPOs that ignore its grab for governance control. Would NPOs involved in, say, childcare work, lose state subsidies if they insist on independent governance?
Gauteng’s move follows the passing of a new lotteries bill that allows for funding of NPOs aligned to government priorities, even for NPOs that don’t apply.
Expect an NPO fight-back of a sort current happening in Kenya, where proposed law would restrict foreign support of civil society.
Advocacy coordinator of Jo’burg Child Welfare Jackie Loffell is unequivocal: “It is unacceptable for the DSD to be seeking to control the appointment of NPO boards”. Inyathelo executive director Shelagh Gastrow describes the Gauteng DSD guidelines as “Mindblowing. It is clear they are trying to create a civil society in their own image”.
She wonders if government has entered the business of setting up its own NPOs that would get state moneys but that could also then receive corporate and lottery support. “These are clearly not civil society organisations but state-created structures. This is a way for the government to sideline independent organisations and replace them with the party faithful, or to marginalise independent thought”.