NGOs must be ready to resist the interference of ‘guidelines’ - Business Day, 9th December 2013.

The IRR's CEO, John Kane-Berman, warns that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) must resist the State's efforts to interfere with them.

Given the weakness of Parliament, South Africa must look to other institutions to help in holding the executive branch of the government to account. These include the judiciary, statutory institutions such as the public protector and the auditor-general, the media, and nonprofit organisations. As a component of democracy, accountability is no less important than transparency and free elections.

Unlike institutions created by the constitution, the media and nonprofits have no official role to play. But they are no less important for that.

Threats to the media are well known. The independence of the legal profession is threatened by the Legal Practice Bill. Renewed threats to other nonprofits now loom.

They take the form of "guidelines" from the Gauteng social development department for the selection of board members. The guidelines thus state the department will establish a "screening committee" for nonprofit board members.

The committee will consist of departmental representatives, municipal officials and representatives of "agreed" organisations. MPs, provincial legislators and ward councillors will have observer status. Nominations for board members will be advertised and the screening committee will finalise a "list of short-listed nominees who are "skilled" and "suitable".

This process is as presumptuous as it would be if the Department of Trade and Industry sought powers to draw up short lists of people for company directorships.

The Gauteng department will no doubt claim that the guidelines are designed to combat malfeasance. Maybe some nonprofits are guilty of this, but any malfeasance in that sector is a drop in the ocean compared with the corruption that characterises the government at all levels. Anyhow, the way to deal with corruption is via the courts, not bureaucratic control.

There can be little doubt that the guidelines are politically motivated. The African National Congress (ANC) has never liked independent institutions in civil society. Hardly had it come to power than Nelson Mandela at the ANC’s conference in Mafikeng in December 1997 suggested opposition parties and nonprofits were part of a counterrevolutionary offensive.

At that time, with one or two exceptions, nonprofits were largely uncritical of the ANC. Many have since become much more vocal. Several have successfully challenged the government in court. Not surprisingly, some of the loudest critics of nonprofits include ministers who are members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Equally unsurprising is that Zimbabwe and Russia are among the states most hostile to nonprofits.

Independent institutions are by definition anathema to the totalitarian mind-set that characterises communist and fascist ideologies. They are also obstacles to implementing the policy of comprehensive cadre deployment to capture all centres of power.

At present, nonprofits are lightly regulated by the Nonprofit Organisations Act. About a year ago, thousands suddenly found themselves deregistered by the government’s nonprofits directorate. At the time, this was excused as a bureaucratic foul-up — plausibly, given the incompetence of other registering bodies.

At roughly the same time, however, the Department of Social Development published a discussion document providing for the establishment of supervisory bodies for nonprofits.

According to the department, South Africa last year had more than 85,000 registered nonprofits. More than 30,000 were in social services, nearly 17,000 in development and housing, 9,000 each in religion and health, 10,000 in education, culture and recreation, and about 1,800 in law, advocacy and politics. The remainder were business and professional organisations, unions, environmental organisations and philanthropic intermediaries.

They must brace themselves to resist interference. If Gauteng gets away with its guidelines, other provinces will follow suit. Successfully "screened" nonprofit boards will then look like that of the SABC.

First published in Business Day on 9th December 2013.