06March

Desperately seeking the Social Sector Summit

Government appears to be steaming ahead with a Social Sector Summit, bringing together NGOs and CBOs later this month in Johannesburg. There’s just one problem: none of the major organisations active in the sector have been invited.

Desperately seeking the Social Sector Summit

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 16 February 2018, said: “In recognising the critical role that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) play in tackling poverty, inequality and related social problems, we will convene a social sector summit during the course of this year. Among other things, this summit should seek to improve the interface between the state and civil society and also address the challenges that NGOs and CBOs face.”

It has come to the attention of Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement that the Social Sector Summit referred to by the President in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) will take place on 18 and 19 March 2020 at the Birchwood Hotel in Johannesburg. We have gathered that the Social Sector Summit is being organised by a large co-ordinating committee including the Presidency, GCIS, Department of Social Development Communications, the National Department of Social Development, the National Development Agency, and Nedlac, and that it is the culmination of a lead-up of nine provincial summits hosted by the premier’s office in each of the nine provinces.

Inyathelo has gone to considerable lengths to obtain information on the Social Sector Summit as several of the topics on the agenda constitute the core of our mission – capacity building of NGOs, resource mobilisation and creating an enabling environment for NGOs. We have checked with many of our partners and allied organisations as to whether they have been invited to – or are aware of – the forthcoming summit or the provincial summits. Only one of our allied organisations has heard of the summit and none of our partners has been invited or knows there is an important national Social Sector Summit about to occur.

No information has been made available by the national co-ordinating committee and there is a serious lack of transparency in the organisation of the summit and the criteria used for the selection of the NGOs that have been invited to it. We have requested invitation lists, criteria for invitations, the agenda, reference material for the summit, the nine provincial reports – but nothing has been forthcoming. All the doors of the government departments involved in this summit are tightly shut. We find the covert organisation and opaque nature of this summit extremely worrying.

As active members of civil society and an organisation that is 17 years old – and which has contributed enormously to the areas of resource mobilisation, capacity building and philanthropy – we are concerned that we, along with many other NPOs and community organisations, have been totally excluded from all discussions related to the summit. Many of the large NGOs which have had considerable impact have also been excluded.

While the President committed himself in the 2018 SONA to the notion of a social compact with civil society, it appears as if that social compact will take place in a business-as-usual format. There appears to be no real change in how government does things, only a rhetoric of innovation. The national steering committee responsible for setting up the summit appears to have gone about the organising of the summit in the same way that they organised the 2012 Summit for Civil Society. The agenda, from what we have seen from the limited information we have via Google, is similar.

We are concerned that there is no monitoring and evaluation report on the work that has occurred over the past eight years, nor is there any reflection on the way in which the lessons from a review will be used to improve the interface between civil society, government, business and philanthropy. In addition, what has happened to the amendment of the NPO Act? The intention was to promote transparency, accountability and improve the government’s working relationship with the sector.

We are well aware that there are many factors that make organising a summit like this one difficult. The South African Non-Government Coalition (SANGOCO) no longer exists, although we hear that there are some people speaking on behalf of SANGOCO in government. Most of the individuals claiming to represent civil society in the Nedlac Community Chamber, which seems to be driving this process, do not represent any existing organisation we are aware of.

The sector has expanded dramatically; the register in the Department of Social Development at the end of June 2019 showed a total of 214,518 organisations. The coordination across government, business and philanthropy requires the organising committee to be fully aware of the priorities of the other sectors. Clearly, this is no easy task. While this may be so, those of us who are also concerned about poverty and inequality and support a social compact would like to know whether these factors have been considered and how they are influencing the thinking on the summit.

While it appears that government’s view is that the sector lacks coordination, a report commissioned by Kagiso Trust on the Typologies of Civil Society in South Africa in 2019 notes that since our transition to a democracy there have been numerous examples of successful coordination efforts by CSO networks that have brought about profound and far-reaching challenges in social policy. Examples presented in the report include the Right2Know campaign, Imali Yethu, and Treatment Action Campaign. A recent example of coordination in education is the National Association of Social Change Entities in Education (Nascee). The report notes the contribution of funding agencies in supporting networks across sectors. Such networks included the Urban Sector Network (USN), Rural Development Sector Network (RDSN) and the National Land Committee (NLC). It also notes that with the withdrawal of donor funds, these networks collapsed as the costs of maintaining them were unsustainable.

To conclude, we are very concerned about the way in which an important Social Sector Summit is being organised and that GCIS does not have a point person or a website available to communicate with the sector or to provide reference materials that have informed the organisation of the summit at large. In fact, not one of the co-ordinating members has any communication strategy in place.

My question is, should we allow the status quo to continue with its operations no matter how problematic they are? Should we give in to the cynicism that exists? As the leader of a non-profit organisation, I refuse! Inyathelo’s staff and Board simply refuse! We will not compromise our democracy by allowing departments in government and Nedlac to operate in the way they have to date. I believe there are many other leaders and organisations that feel the same way. It cannot be business as usual.

Inyathelo and Kagiso Trust are convening a round table in Cape Town on 10 March, 2020 to reflect on the typology study and to examine the organisation and content of the Social Sector Summit to enable the sector to engage with itself and the journey towards the summit. It is time for the critical role that NGOs and CBOs play to be recognised and supported in a true social compact. DM

Nazeema Mohamed is Executive Director of Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement.


 First published on Daily Maverick: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-03-05-desperately-seeking-the-social-sector-summit/