Strategy in a time of mayhem


What is the work of civil society in South Africa now? Will we wait for government to lead the way, or will we ourselves question what is asked of our organisation? And what is the role of Inyathelo?

This was at the core of an Inyathelo Breakfast on the 2nd Floor dialogue, which aimed to provide space for energetic and provocative engagement on key issues facing civil society and South Africa.

Panellists in discussionThe panellists were independent philanthropy, higher education advancement and non-profit consultant Shelagh Gastrow, independent social facilitator Nomvula Dlamini, Kagiso Trust Civil Society Programme Manager Boichoko DItlhake, and Equal Education Deputy General Secretary, Tracey Malawana. Inyathelo Executive Director Nazeema Mohamed chaired the panel.

Shelagh, who had prepared a background document, discussed civil society milestones such as the development of the sector over the past five decades, the 2019 election, and the huge growth in NPO registrations (from about 20 000 in 2002 to 230 000.) “We live in a fast-changing world and it is vital for civil society players to be adaptable and strategic.”

From around 2014 there has been a real reaction to the lack of delivery – after the painful realisation we had a government that was self-centred and tax money was disappearing in huge quantities, said Shelagh. Corruption is now deep in every level of government, even in the smallest municipalities. The system is so entrenched and common that it will take years to root out. 

“We are now seeing a breakdown of social cohesion, revealed in the anger we show one another all the time; everybody is pointing fingers at somebody else instead of us moving forward and saying what we want to achieve.”

At the Rugby World Cup there was an outpouring of “we are better together”, acknowledging that we are in so much trouble, we have to work together. We are so concerned with what divides us, but need to see there is space for dialogue and inclusion, because people are yearning for it. Inequality remains a massive issue, there is state incapacity, nepotism and cadre deployment. There is no accountability and people don’t feel safe. Without an educated population we cannot reach the targets that we want.

Role of civil society: Shelagh quoted Paul Hawken author of Blessed Unrest, who refers to civil society movements across the planet as “humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation.” Civil society can lead change quicker than government and corporates. We can be highly innovative and try new things.

Specific roles for civil society include service provision, being a watchdog, research and policy development, advocacy and litigation, innovation and piloting new ideas, and capacity building.

Drivers of change: It is important to build social compacts at community level – bringing together local government, faith-based organisations, sector experts and others to address local challenges such as education, care of the aged, and school transport. We need to build relationships with business, open avenues to discuss what changes need to be made, and how this can be done. Business is starting to accept it an impact, for example in the products made, and leaders are receptive to compelling proposals.

Support for democracy and the constitution: People look at the Constitution as a document that is in the way, but we need everybody to understand it, and there is a huge role for civil society to educate people about it.

Our society is changing so fast that there will always be new organisations and it would be helpful if there was a place for their incubation. Technology has great potential for what we want to achieve. Environmental issues, too, are something we cannot escape.

Leadership development. There are many issues around training leaders (often former activists) in the non-profit sector so that they can fulfil the professional requirements of many NPOs. Corporate governance is a key area.

Sustainability:  It is a warning sign when an NPO focuses overly on internal matters – wasting time instead of creating impact outside. If we want to sustain change we need visionary funders and courageous organisations.

Opportunities: A new generation of activists will bring new perspectives.

The new issues include climate change, energy, water, air, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the world of work, major population shifts, adaptation of city life, growing numbers of elderly people, global shifts, and war and survival.

In conclusion, it is important to keep in mind that paradigms shift, a new generation of leaders is emerging, let go of old ideas and be open to the new from the edge;  closure of some organisations opens doors for others; and we need to bring values into government and business.


Tracey highlighted civil society’s role in holding government to its obligations; the importance of tactical solutions that organisations can implement. Leadership development is very important.  How do people fund their struggle long-term, given that South Africa is seen as a middle-income country?

Nomvula appreciated the fact that, given how challenging the issues are, we are now forced to look ahead and to act ‒ or we will miss a wonderful opportunity to build South African society. She also recognised the role of faith-based organisations and the Black Consciousness movement. The message is: “Wake up, your time is now, but you need to know what your real work is.”

Boichoko: We need to go back to the basics, to overturn some assumptions and know part of the reason why South Africa almost collapsed. Civil society itself has become corrupt and trade unions have suffocated real struggles. We need to reassess and determine what needs to be done.

Shelagh: The importance of governance, and social leadership.  You have to navigate the terrain, bring people on board, create social cohesion – these take up an enormous amount of time and a leader needs to be outward-facing and engaged with the wider world. Black Consciousness was based on self-reliance. It’s about cleaning your front door, looking after neighbours, not expecting payment. Back to basics is about values and what we want to achieve, but in a modern way.

Nomvula: We must be honest about what we need to learn. As NPOs we don’t fully understand the political space and need to learn how to engage in that space, also with business and tertiary institutions. NPOs are not connected to the grassroots, where there are social delivery protests. We can channel that energy in a positive way. People in SA only talk about political leadership but civil society needs to take leadership back. Politicians’ leadership skills were groomed and developed in civil society. We need to take that back again and find ways to mobilise the resources.

Tracey: One can mobilise people for a goal but it is important to also organise communities so they understand why one is demanding a particular thing. Also to empower them to lead their struggles. How do we collaborate as civil society to achieve a goal? And if funded by a business, how do you handle that relationship?

Comments from the floor:

  • - We are missing the glue that binds NPOs – where are the enablers? There are 230 000 NPOs working in isolation with a little collaboration, because they are in competition for funds. Where are the paths and referral networks? We need a map of South Africa to find out who’s playing where and in what space.
  • While there is a culture of entitlement, there are also examples of collaboration, as in Bonnievale where the Jakes Gerwel Technical School was established by the farming community, government, civil society and others working together. We need to create a more positive picture: we are all in this together and need to become better together.
  • Cooperation: There are many organisations with heart and soul, but there seems to be a logistical challenge: who and timing. Everybody is willing to come to spaces, share and talk, offer constructive critiques then pack up and go home. This may initiate change in the home space but people are not working together to make an impact.

“You always need a driver, and trust,” concluded Shelagh. The breakfast ended with a vote on the most important functions for Inyathelo, which were:

  1. 1. Building of multi-sectorial social compacts;
  2. 2. Leadership development;
  3. 3. Sustainability of the non-profit sector;
  4. 4. Engagement with the Department of Social Development on legislation that could impact on an enabling environment for civil society; and
  5. 5. Building relationships with business.

Follow the full discussion on Facebook: link: https://www.facebook.com/Inyathelo/videos/2396679160599008/