A robust and active civil society is central to building an enduring democracy in South Africa. However, as Mark Heywood of Section27 pointed out in a recent Cape Times article (5 October 2011), the social justice sector of civil society is in danger of extinction as foreign funding dries up and the political space for activism is put under increasing pressure from the state.

Both historically and now, social movements, trade unions, non-profit organisations (NPOs) and a myriad of other social formations play a critical role in keeping checks and balances on the operations of state and other axes of social and economic power such as business. Moreover, it is progressive civil society activism that holds the key to the consolidation of democracy and to ensuring that constitutional values and principles are advanced and defended. Social justice and human rights organisations also challenge existing social and economic inequalities, and in working for systemic change to ensure access to rights and justice for all.

These organisations are often at the forefront of the social change agenda in relation to, among others, access to housing, health care and education, basic service delivery, violence against women and gay and lesbian people, and xenophobia. However, the maintenance and strengthening of this role requires resources, human and financial.

The plummeting of the global economy in 2008 has seen a dwindling of funding resources for civil societies internationally. Coupled with the impact of this, the international funding sector increasingly sees South Africa as an economy with sufficient wealth to be able to support its own civil society. This has been hard-felt by local NPOs, largely dependent on foreign funding. The contraction of international funding has resulted in many NPOs being forced to reduce their work significantly, or even to close their doors. Most critically, we are yet to see an increase in resources from local sources (private, corporate and state) to bridge this growing funding gap in support of the social justice sector.

State funding sources are primarily channelled into those NPOs providing direct welfare services to the poor. In this way, marginalised communities have greater access to basic services due to the work of NPOs. However, the state, through its two key funding agencies – the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and the National Development Agency (NDA) – tends not to fund organisations that challenge the state, advocate for greater political transparency and accountability, or advance social justice principles. Rather, NDA funds are mostly channelled into projects directly in line with the Department of Social Development’s development priorities. With National Lottery funding also being increasingly focused on straightforward welfare and service delivery work, there aren’t sufficient lottery funds to make any kind of meaningful dent in the social justice sector funding gap.

The business sector, as a critical role player in shaping the economy and generating wealth, carries significant responsibility for the country’s long-term development and transformation. But business internationally has a paltry record of funding civil society organisations that drive a human rights or social change agenda. Research has shown that corporates tend, through corporate social investments (CSI), to resource ‘soft issues’ (feeding-schemes and primary education, for example) rather than ‘hard issues’ (advocacy and lobbying, and human rights development). In South Africa, this is compounded by the fact that black economic empowerment (BEE) score-carding and CSI frameworks don’t explicitly promote or measure corporate investment in rights-based and social justice initiatives. As such, there is no policy imperative or political pressure for business to invest in these causes.

Private wealth in South Africa has also been somewhat of a lacuna when it comes to resourcing progressive civil society. A recent report, compiled by Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management and Capgemini, indicates that more than half of Africa’s dollar millionaires, with a combined fortune of about US$390 billion, live in South Africa. Although giving among high-net worth and high-profile celebrities is gaining some ground locally, the nature of this giving tends to be welfare and charity-focused, and risk-averse.

What is required is a strong agenda for social justice philanthropy. Still to find a footing on local soils, social justice philanthropy is based on the principles of social, economic and political justice. It requires the wealthy (both old money and new) to support a transformation agenda that is about deepening human rights and social justice for all. This approach is underpinned by a conscious departure from charitable giving – which is a kind of band-aid solution that serves to maintain a status quo in which poverty cycles and social exclusions continue. Instead, social justice philanthropy seeks to change the foundational social and economic inequalities that marginalise particular communities and perpetuate impoverishment, which is characterised by a fundamental lack of access to rights and justice.

What are the implications of the social justice and human rights sector being forced, through lack of funding, to reduce its work, its voice and its profile? What are the immediate and longer-term impacts of this threat on efforts to strengthen South Africa’s democracy and build an active citizenry?

As the clock ticks on funding for many non-profit organisations, and in light of the structural inequalities we face, will business and wealthy individuals step up to the plate and adopt a social justice funding approach?

Gaby Ritchie, Programme Director for the South African Institute for Advancement, Inyathelo and Melanie Judge, Inyathelo Associate. This article was first published in the Cape Times on 14 October 2011.