William Saunderson-Meyer says big donors are effectively subsidising Jew-baiting in SA
Last week, a South African non-governmental organisation issued — as is its constitutional right — an angry denunciation of murderous Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” in Palestine. Not a word of mention was made of any contributory role Hamas might have had in sparking the tinderbox.
Couched in a floridly abusive style and buttressed by the fallacious assertions that are fundamental to such propaganda, this NGO’s statement called on South Africa, indeed the entire world, to sever diplomatic ties with Israel. They should all divest completely and there should be immediate sanctions against the Jewish state.
South Africans who serve in the Israeli military must be prosecuted. The African National Congress government must immediately and unilaterally end all commercial ties with Israel, giving as an example the 2019 merger between local food and beverage company Clover and the Israeli conglomerate Milco.
None of these demands are, of themselves, remarkable. They are the standard agit-prop menu of the hard-left, Islamist-led activist organisations that globally are trying to shape the narrative around, and world’s response to, the October massacres by Hamas of civilians in Israel and the consequent invasion of Gaza.
But what makes the statement remarkable is that this move to influence foreign policy comes from My Vote Counts (MVC)— a supposedly non-partisan Cape Town-based NGO whose declared mission is to improve the transparency and accountability of South Africa’s multi-party democracy. Until now, it was best known for its admirable efforts in developing political funding oversight mechanisms and lobbying to improve the electoral system.
Even more remarkably, MVC is entirely funded by Western philanthropic organisations. One of these was established by a Holocaust survivor. Another is a German foundation that operates within a legal system that specifically criminalises antisemitism.
Thanks to their generosity, MVC is financially ticking along very nicely. Compared to 2022, its annual budget has jumped by 150% to R5 million. It also has a cosy little nest egg of over a million rand sitting in reserve.
The MVC’s current “donor partners” as it calls them, are the Open Society Foundation the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, the Constitutionalism Fund, the Millennium Trust, and the RAITH Foundation.
The Open Society Foundation (OSF), established and headed by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, gives R850,000 a year. Despite my approaching both its Africa and international headquarters, it failed to respond to questions regarding its support for MVC and its deviation from its mandate.
However, according to Michael Savage, the OSF executive director in South Africa, its funding decisions are underpinned by the liberal democracy values espoused by the philosopher Karl Popper. The key elements, writes Savage on the OSF website, are “a reliance on the rule of law, the existence of a democratically-elected government, a market economy, a strong civil society, respect for minorities and tolerance of divergent opinion”.
Then there’s Germany’s Heinrich Böll Stiftung. It is affiliated with the Greens party in the Bundestag, promotes “non-violence and peace”, and last year it gave MVC just over R200,000. It, too, did not respond to repeated approaches for comment.
The biggest donor is the Constitutionalism Fund (CF). It gave the MVC R2.25 million, almost half of its 2023 budget of R5 million.
According to the CF website, it was established “as a collaboration between The Atlantic Philanthropies (represented now by the Social Change Initiative), the Ford Foundation and The Open Society Foundations, with a combined investment of US$25 million to be spent … over a 10-12 year period”.
The CF says that it intends “to breathe life into the Constitution, such that the people of South Africa use it as a living document”. It did not respond to repeated approaches for comment.
Another big donor is the Millennium Trust (MT), which over the past few years gave the MVC R1.8 million. The MT has as its aim to “contribute to the success of South Africa”.
It will do so through projects that deliver “sustained economic growth, high-quality education, informed public debate, independent democratic institutions and efficient service delivery”.
MT’s executive trustee is Le Roux van der Westhuizen. There was no response to my questions.
The other top donor partner is the RAITH Foundation, which gave the MVC around R2m in the past couple of years. The “privately funded” RAITH says it supports projects that “empower and provide access to justice, improve governance, and promote transparency through the media and community participation”. There was no response to my questions.
The reluctance on the part of these guardians of our democracy to give a public accounting for the actions extended to My Vote Counts itself. Neither MVC’s executive director, Minhah Jeenah, nor Amanda Rinquest, a manager at Black Sash and the chair of the MVC board, responded to questions and interview requests.
Perhaps predictably, the only organisation that did respond to me was the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). It says that the sentiments expressed by MVC “rehash practically word for word what is being pumped out ad nauseam by an alliance of “Hamas-supporting, largely Islamist pressure groups, which demonise and delegitimise the State of Israel on every possible platform and openly campaign for its eradication”.
“Every conceivable propaganda canard against the Jewish state,” said SAJBD assistant director David Saks, “is packed into this [MVC] screed, and by uncritically endorsing such calumnies, the MVC has clearly signed on to the extremist agenda of those who propagate them. Unfortunately, it is neither the first nor almost certainly the last instance of a bona fide democracy-building, human rights-promoting organisation being subverted and perverted by Israel haters and used to push an ideology that makes a mockery of such ideals and values.”
The “alliance” to which Saks refers to is the SA BDS Coalition (South African Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Coalition), of which MVC is a proud member. It’s an international activist network that “exists to bring various solidarity organisations together, under common campaigns, structures, and principles … It therefore creates a platform for the different Palestine Solidarity Organisations to work together and support one another.”
Last month, the SA BDS called for a boycott of fast-food chain Mcdonald's, sports apparel manufacturer Puma and retailer Cape Union Mart — singling out its chairperson, Philip Krawitz for particular abuse. These businesses are apparently all part of the oppressive global capitalist structure that underpins “settler colonialism” and “Zionist genocide”.
It should be clear to anyone but the politically most naive where this is going. The SA BDS, using the tactics that were so successful against apartheid South Africa in the 1990s, is turning up the heat on “apartheid” Israel.
This is all happening, an executive in the foreign donor community points out to me, at a juncture in South African politics where there is a “heavy emotional investment” by a small but powerful section of the local NGO community in the Palestinian cause, come hell or high water. Given the African National Congress government’s unambiguously expressed ideological sentiments, they’re pushing at open door.
The question then to be asked is whether the Western philanthropies that are funding the likes of My Vote Counts will push back by cutting support to hijacked NGOs. For it is not only the potential reputational taint of their brands that they should consider.
In a powerful speech last week, Robert Habeck, the German vice-chancellor and a former leader of the aforementioned Greens, makes it clear how, despite the `’heated muddle” of the present debate, the core morality is unambiguous.
The “both sides” argument is misleading, says Habeck. While Israel “must of course abide by international law and international standards”, it’s telling that nobody frames such expectations of Hamas —“a murderous terrorist group fighting for the annihilation of the state of Israel and the death of all Jews”.
“Those who … hope for peace, who believe in the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own … must now differentiate. And differentiating means to acknowledge that the murderous acts of Hamas are intended to prevent peace.”
Those donors, both organisations and individuals, who are so generously facilitating the weaponisation of NGOs — of which My Vote Counts is, I predict, only one of many — should take stock of what they’re doing. And hey! If they want to share their conclusions publicly, they can find my contact details in their email trash.