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NGOs and litmus test of democracy through natural disasters: SA in good standing

Gift of the Givers members were on hand to deliver social relief in KwaZulu-Natal during the floods. Picture: Supplied.

Gift of the Givers members were on hand to deliver social relief in KwaZulu-Natal during the floods. Picture: Supplied.

Published May 24, 2022


OPINION: The importance of a democracy can be juxtaposed to the broader African continent, where NGOs are viewed as ‘regime change’ advocates.

BY: Ratidzo Makombe

Development economist, Amartya Sen, noted in his famous text, “Development as Freedom”, that democracy is an important pillar for the economic development of any country. He alludes to how democracy is important when a country faces a natural disaster, such as the floods that ravaged Durban and other parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

For Sen, democratic countries with strong independent institutions can withstand unforeseen cataclysmic events, such as the floods in Durban. When substantiating this point, Sen draws examples from Botswana and Zimbabwe, where their experiences of famines that occurred in the early 1980s were not properly managed by the governments at that time, especially in the Zimbabwean case where the country was governed by democratic principles.

Within the African context, South Africa is often viewed as the beacon of democracy in Africa. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has held elections that have been rarely criticised by the international community and the country’s opposition parties.

A practical assessment of democracy and its relationship with state institutions shows that South Africa seems to be in good standing. Although recently, the debate surrounding state capture has tested South African institutions’ resolve to complete the investigation process and release the state capture report, which is an indication that the institutions in the country are functioning reasonably well.

The Durban floods and the damage to the livelihoods of citizens in KZN can be viewed as a mammoth task for the government. It is safe to say that any government would be severely tested by a natural disaster, even in the most advanced societies. Because government interventions would involve monetary allocations, the fear of corruption would arise.

Citizens have often been confronted with corruption issues, particularly with the ongoing investigation of state capture. In October of 2020, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) announced an investigation of R10.5 billion in potentially corrupt Covid-19 spending across the country.

It was not surprising that the public space was dominated by news about the potential looting of the funds being raised to support the victims of the flood. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that measures had been put to ensure that public officials would not divert the funds. Despite this, there is a high risk that corruption could hamper the rebuilding process in Durban.

Citizens are also wary of the government’s past involvement in aid for the vulnerable. This is evident with cases of corruption across South Africa involving councillors who would choose who receives the food parcels. Some have been accused of only giving parcels to their relatives and members of their constituencies, thereby sowing serious divisions within communities.

Instead of donating funds to the government, the citizens opted to support the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – Gift of the Givers – co-ordinating efforts to assist the victims. Indeed, of the fundamental tenets of a democracy is the vibrancy of civil society organisations such as the Gift of the Givers. One of the reasons such organisations thrive in South Africa can be attributed to the democratic environment created by the government.

The importance of a democratic society can also be juxtaposed to the broader African continent, where NGOs are viewed as “regime change” advocates. It is essential to be cognisant of the importance of a democratic society in accommodating divergent non-state actors in the face of a natural disaster.

The political environment in South Africa is often viewed as being more receptive to NGOs, hence, the success of the NGOs such as the Gift of the Givers. Previously, the organisation was also at the forefront of assisting communities affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It has been argued that the main role of NGOs is to complement the work that the government is conducting. This has seen many NGOs being at loggerheads with governments of other African countries. In 2017, a law passed in Addis Ababa stipulated that NGOs can only receive a maximum of 10% of their funding from abroad. The government, which is highly suspicious of foreign influence, said the law would ensure greater openness.

In March, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government in Zimbabwe threatened NGOs for interfering in the country’s governance.

These two cases are examples of the fractious relationship between African governments and NGOs. These examples put the Gift of the Givers case in perspective. It alludes to the tolerance of South Africa, which provides a platform for a harmonious relationship between the government and NGOs. In times of crisis, it is always vital to have a unified approach to addressing the existing challenges.

Democracy is at the heart of Sen’s work, and this is useful for not only South Africa but for Africa. NGOs are an integral part of the governing apparatus of every country, and the Gift of the Givers’ case is pertinent. As shown in the KZN flooding experience, the resilience of the society was brought to the forefront due to their inclusiveness, unity, and selflessness.

* Ratidzo Makombe is a doctoral candidate in Development Studies and a Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), South Africa.

* The views expressed here may not necessarily be that of IOL.