Time to salute our Non-Profit Organisations
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 organizations. 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.
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”.