/ 2 October 2023

NGOs will have to up their game in South Africa

Nongovernmental organisations like Equal Education have played an important role in advocating for equality and social justice in South Africa.

The ANC’s questionable performance in government has increasingly required civil society organisations to take on a largely defensive role in the policy space, focusing on holding it to its constitutional obligations. 

Along with the judiciary and some elements of the media, NGOs are credited with holding an often predatory government to account. These efforts have focused largely on “lawfare”, rather than positive advocacy, raising the question of what a more positive norm entrepreneurship  will look like in the country’s increasingly complex political environment. 

The term “norm entrepreneurship” refers to the ability of non-state actors to influence societal norms and, in particular, political policies. 

Advocacy NGOs will need to draw lessons from successful norm entrepreneurship and from scholarly understanding to develop this more positive stance. 

NGOs played an important role in the positive norm entrepreneurship that helped to end apartheid. Since the advent of democracy in 1994, NGOs have increasingly had to defend existing constitutional and human rights norms against the ANC government, which has frequently ignored the very ideals and values that brought it into power. NGOS will need to continue playing this critical role in relation to any government, and in particular, any government involving the ANC, but that they also need to overcome the severe developmental and cultural regressions caused by the ANC’s failures of governance to re-assert their role as positive norm entrepreneurs.

The concept of norm entrepreneurship gained prominence globally as NGOs shifted their focus from implementing development projects to advocating for broader policy changes. Some prominent examples include “peace and disarmament, anti-slavery, women’s rights, humanitarian law, environmental law, human rights, worker rights and international economic law”, according to Steve Charnovitz of George Washington University. NGOs include many types of organisation, including large global north charities such as Oxfam and the Red Cross and local self-help organisations in the global south that “aim to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged people”, noted Vandana Desai in The Companion to Development Studies

Until the 1970s, NGOs played a prominent role in implementing development initiatives in the global south, often collaborating with governments and aid agencies. As privately funded organisations, they were perceived to be more flexible, innovative, adaptive and capable of serving target groups than cumbersome government and aid organisations. 

Criticism of the effectiveness of aid led to structural reforms in the funding and management of development initiatives and, ultimately, a more equal relationship between organisations in the global north and south. As part of this, the advocacy of new ideas and values, particularly centering on good governance and social capital, grew in importance, with southern NGOs participating in the process rather than acting as the implementers of northern ideas and priorities, according to Desai

Norm entrepreneurship involves the capacity of organisations to challenge existing norms, mobilise support and eventually establish new norms that influential actors must internalise and try to realise in their approach to social policy. In one useful definition, the norm entrepreneurship life cycle involves three distinct stages: advocacy, or “norm emergence”; broad norm acceptance, usually built on a “norm cascade”; and the internalisation of the new norms. Crucially, the move from advocacy to acceptance involves a “tipping” point, when “a critical mass of relevant state actors adopt the norm”, as argued by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkin in International Norm Dynamics and Political Change

From the 2000s, international NGOs embraced advocacy as a central to their mission, focusing on critical global issues such as climate change, poverty reduction, and the United Nations sustainable development goals. The Jubilee 2000 campaign was the first global campaign on which NGOs cooperated on a single issue, debt relief for developing countries, leading to commitments to cancel $100 billion in southern debt, which contributed to poverty alleviation and the use of resources for health care, housing provision and education. NGOs such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the WWF have raised awareness on issues such as climate action, human rights, and natural resources at international conferences and within individual countries. 

Norms, as standards of behaviour, are not obeyed because they are binding but because they are regarded as legitimate to the extent that it is felt to be important for the esteem of actors to conform to them. Early international campaigns focused on consequences — cost–benefit analysis and strategies such as reciprocity, sanctions, and rewards — but were perceived to have failed, and advocacy moved to an emphasis on “norms, ethics, and the moral dimension of the problem”. Some scholars argue for a “middle way” that uses both approaches and also links the issue at hand to problems that are important to decision-makers. 

Examples of successful problem linkage are the issues of fossil fuel subsidies and fossil fuel divestment. Attempts to persuade actors in these areas to curtail production were only successful when the issue was linked to economic incentives for governments and corporations. A similar argument can be made for the advocacy of corporate social responsibility initiatives by corporations; these will only gain traction when it can be shown that adoption will involve significant political and economic gains for governments and private business organisations.

NGOs in the African context have taken on various roles, including implementation of development programmes, advocacy for policy change, and protection of constitutional rights. In South Africa, NGOs have a storied history as norm entrepreneurs and catalysts for change. During the apartheid era, NGOs played a crucial role in advocating for human rights and racial equality. Prominent civil society organisations such as the United Democratic Front and NGOs such as the South African Council of Churches and the South African Institute for Race Relations actively challenged the oppressive apartheid regime, paving the way for democracy and equality.

Following South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, the ANC government recognised NGOs as implementers of ANC policy and partners in service delivery. This acknowledgment led to significant funding and collaboration between the government and NGOs in the first decade of democracy. But it also resulted in a “brain drain” of NGO staff to the government, as many sought to directly contribute to nation-building. In the subsequent years, NGOs encountered several challenges. Reduced international and corporate funding intensified competition among NGOs for resources. The ANC government’s growing hostility to NGOs that advocated for human rights also contributed to the fragmentation of the NGO sector.

As the government’s governance and service delivery record deteriorated, major national NGOs in South Africa found themselves increasingly focusing on human rights and constitutional issues. Organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign (HIV/AIDS prevention), Section27 (educational rights and standards) and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (tax rights) engaged in legal battles with the government. A small NGO, Earthlife Africa, prevented an illegal nuclear deal with Russia that would have committed the country to a debt of trillions of rand and strategic dependence for its power supply on a foreign power. In broader civil society, the Save South Africa campaign emerged to advocate for urgent reform within the ruling party.

According to one estimate, South Africa has more than 200 000 NGOs, most of them involved in local, grassroots service provision. That figure alone points to an enormous shortfall in the state’s capacity to serve the populace. NGOs continue to face sectoral challenges such as intense competition for funding and resources. They will need to unite to challenge an unresponsive government collectively, as well as to develop effective strategies to garner support from international and corporate funders. But above all, it is arguable that the intense demand on advocacy NGOs to hold the ANC government to account and to defend constitutional values has limited their ability to develop a more critically innovative and positive approach to norm entrepreneurship. 

Clearly, NGOs will have to continue defending constitutional values but they will also need to actively promote new norms that align with international developments, particularly in areas relating to good and effective governance. One important key to successful norm entrepreneurship lies in identifying useful problem linkages. As South Africa’s political landscape evolves, it is likely to emphasise the importance of a demonstrable national interest to foreign policy on the one hand, and better and more effective connection between political parties and their social environments on the other. 

The relevance of international and national interlocutors such as other governments, international NGOs and national norm entrepreneurs will become increasingly important to the establishing and maintaining the legitimacy and esteem in which the country’s government is held. In recent years, for example, the private sector and labour have adopted more critical stances regarding the ineffectiveness of government. 

The ANC government’s approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has occasioned a vociferous debate about the extent to which the ruling party’s foreign policy effectively represents the country’s geopolitical position and interests and raised questions internationally about its commitment to human rights. Moreover, demands are growing for more responsible and responsive political representation by political parties that ensures that they engage more consistently and effectively with constituencies. 

Advocacy NGOs would do well to focus their persuasive efforts as much on informing and engaging with these government stakeholders, and particularly their constituencies, as on the decision-makers themselves. 

Richard Jurgens is the editor of The Africa Governance Papers, an independent, peer-reviewed academic research journal published by Good Governance Africa.