‘I don’t know how I can keep helping’

South Africa’s only civil society network for rape and abuse victims, Themba Lesizwe, has collapsed after the European Union withdrew â,¬20-million it had pledged to the organisation over the next three years.

Themba Lesizwe, established in 2001 by four NGOs, had grown into a network of 269 affiliates in the victim empowerment sector in South Africa. It coordinated a variety of programmes for victims and survivors of violence. Many are one-person NGOs established in rural communities to assist rape and trauma victims, which run on budgets as low as R50 000 a year and relied solely on funding from Themba Lesizwe. In poorly resourced and policed rural communities, these tiny NGOs are often the only support available to victims.

“I don’t know how I can keep helping, how I can keep going,” said Samuel Mosiliki, who runs the Qholaqhwe Advice Centre for rape victims from four police stations in the Harrismith region in the Free State. Mosiliki’s centre offers paralegal services and trauma counselling for at least 10 rape victims a day.

The collapse of Themba Lesizwe is the latest casualty in the problematic relationship between the department of social development, international donors and the civil society sector. Activists have warned that if not dealt with, these problems will destroy the non-profit sector.

Themba Lesizwe, together with the social development department and the European Union had been negotiating since mid-2004 to try reach agreement on the transfer of the â,¬20-million. The deal was supposed to have been finalised and funds received by January last year. These would have enabled Themba Lesizwe to implement the agreed programmes, such as victim empowerment centres in police stations, clinics for rape survivors and child rape victims and education programmes for social workers, within a three-year time limit.

But stringent bureaucratic requirements from the EU, and delays by the social development department meant that by the beginning of 2007 the agreement was still up in the air. The Mail & Guardian spoke to several civil-society leaders, all of whom wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from government and donors.

Insiders told the M&G that the EU requirements changed continually during the discussion process. Themba Lesizwe, would, for example, complete paperwork — sometimes hundred of pages long — only to be told they had been given the wrong documentation and had to fill in another batch of documents. Each time, the EU head office in Brussels had to give the go-ahead on the new set of documentation, which often delayed the process for weeks.

“Perhaps thanks to the legacy of Alan Boesak, [the EU] requirements can be extremely tedious and complicated,” a civil society leader complained. “One [EU] official joked to me that their application forms were written by an Italian then translated into English by a German and then had to be [processed] by people for whom English is a second or third language.”

The social development department, in turn, was required to develop “work plans” together with Themba Lesizwe on how the EU money would be managed. But, the M&G understands, departmental officials consistently failed to honour meetings, or sent different officials each time, which meant the plans took 18 months to complete and the process cost Themba Lesizwe at least R500 000 in staff hours.

To keep the organisation afloat while the negotiations continued, the director of Themba Lesizwe, Ashley Green-Thompson, independently took the decision to borrow funds from another donor, Irish Aid. Green-Thompson had apparently believed it was just a matter of time before the EU money would be transferred because the contract had been signed. He planned to repay the borrowed money to Irish Aid once the EU funds came through. But the contract to transfer the â,¬20-million was suddenly terminated after the audits of two of Themba Lesizwe’s founding NGOs failed the EU’s financial standards.

Prior to releasing the funds the EU demanded a full audit of all its donations to Themba Lesizwe and its affiliates. The audits of two of the founding organisations –Sinani Programme for Survivors of Violence in KwaZulu-Natal and the Victim Empowerment Programme of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg — failed the “standards of record keeping expected from the European Union”, wrote Themba Lesizwe chairperson Craig Higson-Smith, in a letter to affiliates last month announcing the network’s closure. The audits did not reveal fraud, rather minor cases of financial mismanagement, such as failing to obtain the correct number of signatures on a transport payment.

Last week Higson-Smith said the poor audits, plus Green-Thompson’s actions, had left the organisation with “no moral footing” to argue its case. However, he appeared to share a pervasive frustration within civil society that it was being forced to take desperate measures to survive because the social development department had failed in its legislative mandate, stipulated in the integrated victim empowerment policy of 2004, to empower the non-profit sector financially.

“It is with deep sadness that I must announce the immediate closure of Themba Lesizwe,” wrote Higson-Smith. “The trustees of Themba Lesizwe and I have agonised over this decision, but we can see no other responsible course of action. We are aware that our closure will be experienced by many as a major blow to the victim-empowerment sector in South Africa.”

“Real political will to support the NGO sector might have saved Themba Lesizwe,” a former member of the organisation’s leadership said. “There is a serious lack of capacity in the social development department — a lot of head-nodding, but never a firm answer and no commitment to change this.”

An example of the stagnation at government level is the ongoing failure by the social development department to implement the Victims’ Charter. The charter, which provides a legal framework for the rights of victims of crime and the services available to them, was developed five years ago. In 2004 Cabinet approved it, but it still hasn’t been implemented and remains unavailable to the victims of crime it is intended to help.

On the budgetary level, departmental subsidies to NGOs are woefully inadequate. During the 2005/06 financial year these subsidies amounted to an average of 3c per person (based on mid-year census figures for 2005). In the 2006/07 budget the social development department’s victim empowerment programme, which assists NGOs such as Themba Lesizwe, was allocated one of the smallest budgetary tranches of R4-million.

While expenditure on transfers to NGOs increased at an annual rate of 98,5% between 2003 and 2007, this was largely because of additional allocations to LoveLife and the HIV/Aids departmental programme, leaving the victim empowerment sector under-resourced.

Bridget van der Merwe, the head of the Cape Town Association for the Physically Disabled, an affiliate of Themba Lesizwe, said the closure of the organisation had left four people, disabled as a result of crime, without the necessary funds for their rehabilitation, which Themba Lesizwe had been providing.

Sarah Crawford-Brown of the Trauma Centre in Cape Town described the formation of Themba Lesizwe six years ago as “a turning point” for the victim empowerment sector in South Africa. “It contextualised South Africa’s approach to psycho-social support and created a model for us to work from because we all came together and shared ideas,” she said. “We’re struggling to survive now. Themba Lesizwe was a conduit for national funding. It’s a tragedy that organisations offering vital trauma support are struggling at a time when South Africa is desperate.”

The EU did not answer emailed questions.

According to Lakela Kaunda, spokesperson for the social development department, the delay in processing the contract was caused by Themba Lesizwe, which had to re-submit its application “as the first one sent did not meet the requirements … as set out in the Non-Profit Organisations Act. The Department has in place processes to expedite any application should circumstances of the applicant so necessitate, and if the applicant motivates in writing. No such request was received from Themba Lesizwe.” The department did not answer questions on the apparent incapacity of its victim empowerment unit.

Top employer

Civil society is one of the largest employers in South Africa — hiring more people than the mining sector does.

According to a 2001 report called South African Non-Profit Sector Study by Professor Mark Swilling at the University of Stellenbosch the sector employs 645 316 people (compared with the mining sector at just more than 500 000 people). This amounts to 9% of the formal non-agricultural workforce.

In addition, in 1998, the total operating expenditure of civil society was R9,3-billion, or 1,2% of the country’s GDP. — Vicki Robinson

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Vicki Robinson
Guest Author

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