The perfect storm that shut down Idasa

IDASA (1987-2013)

It had, unlike many, survived the transition to democracy in 1994 by reinventing itself under Wilmot James and – briefly – Mamphela Ramphele, with new programmes on budget process, public opinion and parliamentary monitoring.

This led to advances in budget transparency and rights-based budgeting, setting new global standards, and work with Kader Asmal on a lasting parliamentary disclosure regime for outside financial interests.

A gap in parliamentary oversight was filled by Idasa’s offspring, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group.

Founded by former politicians Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine in 1987 as the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa, Idasa has a proud place in South Africa’s history books for its convening of the Dakar meeting of ANC exiles and nationalists from home, an early step in talks to end apartheid.

Idasa’s foremost capability was knowing who needed to be in the room and then how best to facilitate dialogue, a trait once integral to this country’s political DNA, now faded, as Marikana showed so catastrophically.

So, if Idasa can fall, then what hope for the many other organisations that are in crisis? After all, with its customary pragmatism, Idasa had under Paul Graham’s careful stewardship found “new markets” across the continent in the past decade. But in developing new programmes that linked the democratic process with socioeconomic outcomes, in other words, procedural democracy with substantive issues of equality and development, it may well have overestimated the sophistication of the donor community, which prefers to pigeonhole organisations in neat ­little boxes.

Idasa grew exponentially during the mid-2000s, doubling its budget and its size, from 80 to 160 full-time staff – just in time for the 2008 global economic crisis.

It was hit by a perfect storm. Donors slashed budgets, especially to countries deemed sufficiently strong and middle-income and exchange-rate fluctuations messed with the best-laid budget plans. Moreover, now that it was “re-granting” to partners around the continent, Idasa underestimated the complexity as well as the cost of doing so, while, as a consequence of tighter budgets, it was losing some of its most effective staff at the worst possible time.

In response to this crisis in the funding of non-governmental organisations, it is tempting to say that civil society should adapt and find a way of living without foreign grants. This is fine in principle, but in practice there is no tradition of philanthropic grant-making in South Africa, least of all for democracy work, from which most corporates shy – except, that is, when secretly filling the bank accounts of the ANC or the Democratic Alliance.

Corporate leaders are quick to complain about the infirmities of the democratic system and the consequent political risk, but they are very slow to fund organisations willing to work independently on issues of accountability and transparency. Today’s johnny-come-lately organisations pontificate about money, politics and the arms deal, but it was Idasa’s work on these issues 10 years ago that ensured that they got the public prominence they deserved.

Critics of Idasa, especially within the nationalist wing of the ruling party, who liked to try to write us off as “liberals”, will be quietly rejoicing.  Idasa always had enemies across the political spectrum. This was a sure sign that it was doing something right.  

Richard Calland worked for Idasa from 1995 to 2011.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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