Donors ditch land NGO

South Africa’s largest land rights movement, the 20-year-old National Land Committee (NLC), has been brought to its knees by ideological infighting, financial mismanagement and an exodus of member organisations.

The crisis, which was set to be debated at an emergency board meeting on Thursday, has already frightened off the foreign donors who funded the NLC’s umbrella structure since its inception as an anti-apartheid social justice network in 1985. However, at the time of going to press, the meeting had not been concluded.

NLC acting national director Florence Cairncross was consistently unavailable for comment this week, but outgoing board chairperson Sihle Mkhize confirmed that “funding is drying up because donors are redirecting their money elsewhere”.

“The crisis is really the result of a combination of many things, not just funding problems. There are also internal problems. The NLC board is set to meet to debate these issues and to decide whether to downsize the organisation’s operations or to disband it completely,” said Mkhize.

The decision is bound to be a blow to the NLC’s newly appointed national director, Mfaro Moyo, who has just resigned from a United Nations’ programme in Zimbabwe to take over leadership of the South African organisation from April 1.

Moyo was appointed before the Southern Cape Land Committee (SCLC) and the Land Access Movement of South Africa (Lamosa) tabled a motion to formally dismantle the NLC, while retaining the current coalition board, and instead establish a centralised lobby organisation to champion policy issues without any of the NLC’s current overhead costs.

SCLC, Lamosa and other affiliates all complain that NLC head office staff are better paid than the people they are supposed to be serving out in the provinces, and that despite this the NLC produces little concrete benefit for either member organisations or donors.

Mkhize refused to be drawn on Moyo’s fate if the NLC was disbanded or on the nature of its “internal problems”, but disgruntled NLC staff claim that bitter internal faction fighting has torn apart the original alliance of nine provincially based land rights non-governmental organisations.

NLC affiliates in the East Cape, North West and Northern Cape withdrew from the movement in 2003, at the height of a clash between outspoken NLC director Zakes Hlatshwayo and the organisation’s board.

Hlatshwayo’s unauthorised public support for the militant Landless People’s Movement (LPM), and alleged mismanagement of finances and other NLC resources, as well as insubordination, sparked a disciplinary process that ended in his acrimonious dismissal and strained relations with the LPM.

The NLC has, over the past year, attempted to streamline its top-heavy head office, as well as tighten the focus of its campaigns, in a bid to win back the support of both provincial affiliates and foreign donors.

Mkhize reluctantly conceded this week that the restructuring programme had been only partially successful.

“All I can say is that the NLC’s operating and staff expenses are still too high. To say anything more would be pre-empting an important internal debate that still needs to take place,” he said.

Senior NLC staff are more forthright, citing serious and repeated donor objections to the NLC’s support for militant social movements.

“It is disingenuous to say that the funding crisis is the core of the problem. The crux of the matter is disagreement around the NLC’s relationship with the LPM and government, and the lack of consensus on an ideological vision for the organisation,” said a senior NLC manager, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions during the restruc- turing process.

“Donors have been systematically withdrawing their funds for over a year now, saying they disagree with the NLC’s analysis of the land situation in South Africa. But, instead of engaging with donors or trying to source alternative funding, the NLC has been consumed with internal transformational issues.”

The central disagreement within the NLC appears to centre on whether the organisation should embrace the LPM’s confrontational mass action strategies against perceived failures in the government’s land policies, or whether it should develop a more constructive “problem solving” approach that offers government possible solutions.

Donors, say NLC staff and independent analysts, favour constructive engagement.

“The public debate around land issues, and the militancy and [emotion] involved, has become just too sensitive for many foreign donors,” explains University of the Western Cape land reform expert Edward Lahiff.

“It would be tragic for the NLC to actually disband. I cannot imagine how all these diverse rural organisations and social movements will be able to develop a coherent voice on national policy issues without a key structure like the NLC coordinating their input.”

Noting that few of the NLC’s current affiliates had the analytical or material resources to dissect or help shape either national or even provincial government’s land reform policies and budgets, Lahiff warned against the organisation’s dissolution.

“The NLC’s individual members will all be able to stand on their own, but they will be severely weakened where it counts at national level,” he said.

The LPM, which was never a formal NLC affiliate even though it operated from the organisation’s Johannesburg offices, is meanwhile watching from the sidelines.

“None of this affects us. We have our own offices now, in Brixton. Some NLC directors tried to create a monster out of the LPM, but while they are now in crisis, the LPM is going from strength to strength — and is fast gaining an international reputation,” says national organiser Mangaliso Kubheka. — African Eye News Service

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Sizwe Samayende
Guest Author
Justin Arenstein
Justin Arenstein works from Africa. Investigative journalist & #CivicTech strategist. Manages innovation fund tech labs across Africa. Founder @afriLEAKS @Code4Africa @AfricanCIR @HHAfrica Justin Arenstein has over 7519 followers on Twitter.

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