In our view

We are all to blame for deaths - The Star, 23 August 2012

LAST week, nearly 40 people were killed in a complex cocktail of political, economic and social distress. The fact that there was little leadership making an effort to resolve what was clearly becoming an uncontrollable tragedy waiting to happen, shows the weakness of our government, the trade union movement and the corporate sector.

They literally washed their hands and left it up to a small band of policemen and women to try and resolve. It appears as if there are no longer any rules governing our behaviour in South Africa - it's everyone for themselves, from rich to poor. The police are too weak to apply the rule of law, the courts are undermined, and individuals are ignoring any social boundaries. This is indicative of a total loss of social capital and social cohesion. Missing, too, in the appalling mess on the hill at Marikana last week was any visible sign of civil society, that part of our society that focuses on "fixes' what is broken.

During the 1980s, our civil society organisations were active and well respected in a dynamic and often violent context. They were frequently asked to intervene where no one else dared to venture.

What has happened to that element of our society that was so engaged in the past? The bottom line is that South Africans across the spectrum have been lulled into such an appalling state of dependency and entitlement that we don't even bother to support our civil society organisations. For far too long, we have expected individuals in other countries to help us by providing financial support, either directly through overseas development aid or via international NGOs like Oxfam, Action Aid and Comic Relief. The fact that the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) could only raise a miserable half a million from South African sources to advocate for the provision of anti-retrovirals is an example of this dependency. Hundreds of millions were donated from abroad to support this campaign.

South Africans are known as generous individuals but we are failing our own civil society by not supporting them financially. Three established non-profit organisations (NPOs) - Rape Crisis, Big Issue and The South African Red Cross Society - recently announced that they are battling to keep their doors open due to a lack of funding. They join an already long list of veteran NPOs in SA that have been forced to retrench staff and scale back on essential services to the public. The Red Cross dates back more than a century to when four doctors formed an ambulance corps with the blessing of the then president of the old Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger. Rape Crisis will mark its 40th anniversary next year, and continues to act as the only real bridge between a rape survivor and the justice system. And in the 15 years since the Big Issue was launched, more than 17 000 homeless and destitute people have been helped and more than R17 million has been earned. These organisations are not the "new kids on the block". They also provide essential services and support, as promised by our constitution, to our most vulnerable members of society. How can we all stand by and collectively allow them to drown and die?

According to the National Coalition for Social Services which represents 3000 welfare organisations, 70% of all welfare services are delivered by non-profit organisations (NPOs). The Department of Social Development has reduced its funding support for these NPOs over the past few years, and while government is doing more for the poor and vulnerable by increasing access to social grants, we all know it is not a sustainable replacement for employment-derived income.

The reality is that our civil society is having to pick up the pieces of our broken society, and continues to play a critical role in building social cohesion and social capital in our communities. Without these organisations, the most vulnerable would have nowhere to turn to. NPOs are providing the real glue that keeps communities together and assists orphans, the elderly, the disabled, the terminally ill and the abused. In addition, they are often on the frontline of defending our rights, providing policy input and undertaking research that feeds into advocacy in a range of areas. They also play a fundamental role in providing the necessary checks and balances on the operations of state and other axes of social and economic power such as business.

As a country, we still have a long way to go if we want to create a robust democracy and fulfil the basic rights promised to all in our Constitution. As individual South Africans, we do have the power to change things, to follow our passions, to support the schools and universities where our children are studying, and to invest in organisations that assist our fellow citizens.

At the end of the day, it is up to us all to commit to our communities, our own civil society and our own institutions. Without our personal philanthropy and individual giving, we cannot hope to build a strong and just society where our Constitutional values and principles are upheld, human rights are defended and the life chances of marginalised and disadvantaged citizens are improved.

Shelagh Gastrow is the Executive Director of Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement.