NPOs and the enemy within

Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini must wonder what’s just hit her. There she is, happily deregistering non-profit organisations (NPOs) by the tens of thousands, and suggesting innocuous amendments to law governing their work – and all hell breaks loose. She will find answers in our history, her department’s incompetence, and a view of charity held by many South Africans. Then there is NPO suspicion of politicians even when real danger is coming not from them, but from the private sector.

Ours are a generous people. A 2010 Barclays Wealth report ranks South Africans as second only to Americans in philanthropy. Stats SA counts 1,4 million people volunteering time in anything from community policing to feeding schemes. Despite straightened times, corporate social investment jumped to almost R7 billion in 2012, up from just over R5 billion three years ago, reckons analytical group Trialogue. Dlamini’s own department gets 71 new NPO registration requests a day, and this rises 14% a year.

Legally, it’s dead easy to start an NPO, but authority hasn’t always been supportive. The 1972 Schlebusch commission harassed anti-apartheid NPOs and proscribed their foreign funding. A Fundraising Act made collecting money dependant on a state-issued fundraising number; criticism of government was chilled.

Come 1995, and an NPO with strong “struggle” ties campaigned for even tighter controls. A state tribunal would assess NPOs at will, close down those it didn’t like, and even appoint members of NPO governing bodies. This writer was part of the resultant outcry, and served on a ministerially-appointed committee to propose changes to the Fundraising Act. The NPO Act of 1997 followed, scrapping altogether the need for fundraising numbers, and even of registration at all.

NPOs can register with minimal reporting requirements, but are not bound to. If they want special tax advantage and Seta payment exemptions, they follow the route of getting the required tax status from Sars. They are naturally also bound by common law and relevant legislation depending on their being trusts, or non-profit companies or just voluntary groupings.

Now two things have caused some, such as the formidable head of prominent NPO Inyathelo, Shelagh Gastrow, to imagine we’re back to 1995: the recent “deregistration” of perhaps 50 000 NPOs by the state, and government proposals for a mild tightening of NPO law. If the first has occurred to compliant NPOs, then it may be more incompetence than malice, given that those affected include the Jacob Zuma Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The second involves fairly timid proposals to introduce especially governance advisory services, and to establish a tribunal to mediate NPO-government disputes. It does not take us back to the past, and Gastrow, brave and alert though she is, surely gilds the lily in saying that NPO freedoms are under their greatest threat since apartheid.

A far graver danger lurks in unthinking “good governance” proposals (part of “King III”) that all-out and complicated reporting be required of “all entities”, right down to community-based voluntary groups – a move beloved of bean counters but that could strangle community innovation and severely restrict free association. Against this, it must be said, Gastrow has also led an increasingly successful fight to stop us  going down a private sector-designed road, paved with good intention, straight to compliance hell.

(First published in The Citizen, February 2013)

– By Paul Pereira