Ralph Free talk at USB (Stellenbosch University Business school)

25 years ago South African civil society was at the zenith of it’s power and influence. Any analysis today would prove a dramatic reduction in the power wielded by civil society which has in turn, contributed to a destabilizing of our country.
Power in modern countries is (simply) vested in three somewhat amorphous and chaotic groups. Firstly, government and the political parties that contest that space, secondly, the owners and managers of the economy and thirdly, civil society. Clearly these are not tightly or exclusively defined but the power wielded within the groups amalgamates to serve the interests of each group. More importantly, when all three sectors are reasonably healthy and engaged in a three way “dialectic” societies are most productive and stable – delivering to all. Whenever one leg of this tripod holding the state in check is weakened, unsustainable practices serving the interests of the remaining two sectors emerge. If my first assertion is valid, the withdrawal from power by civil society leaves us open to the unchecked aspirations of the remaining legs of the tripod. Greed for power and wealth rules.
Examples may best illustrate the point. In South Africa transfers of wealth to the rich via the political-business nexus is driving inequality to record levels with little moral or ethical power available to reduce such practices. The state is under managed and too much of it’s resources are being redirected to serving the political and economic elite. When a road is built who does it primarily serve? A community cut off by poor infrastructure, the company who built it or the party or official in search of a kickback? This question should be asked in one form or another of every aspect of the budgets of our municipalities and government. The value system currently guiding the budgeting processes needs to be re-established and monitored by civil society and our representatives in the Chapter nine institutions.
Corruption, moral and financial, reduces our ability to deliver the developmental state, tarnishes our international reputation as a destination for social and economic investment, and threatens the vision of the future we “sold” to the people during the years of struggle.
Fortunately there is a good chance to remedy the situation. But first, what is civil society? The World Alliance for Citizen Participation defines it as “the arena, outside the family, the state and the market where people associate to advance common interests” - a place for uncoerced collective action. This action designed to shape the values and vision of the state through debate, protest etc and to deliver services to the sectors of the population unreached by government.
Neither government nor business is rotten to the core. Opportunistic elements within both have had too much influence and must be called to account. Essential to this is Civil Society re-organising itself and taking back the power released to government during the nineties. This does not require a romantic and idealized Civil Society “united in purpose and voice” but one whose varied voices must practically reclaim the power to shape and direct the activities of the state in partnership with government and business. All three have to recognize the urgency to gather in a formal forum to correct the malaise gripping the South African state. For us to achieve our objectives we must act to strengthen S. A.’s civil society and redirect the state. Civil society, that is WE have to grasp the nettle of power. This after all is where we began.
To rise to this challenge we must understand our context. The events of the continuing Arab Spring in Egypt this week teach us that it is not necessary to understand Aristotle, Marx, Thatcher, etc. to know that things must change for the better.  It is however imperative that we have read and understood them to know what is possible and how, practically, to deliver the new order.
One positive emerging from the travails of the global financial system is that leadership in most spheres – social, political, economic – have been driven to contemplate the world view that emerges from the work of philosopher-economists such as Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.   The social contracts governing today’s world and holding the hope of an ever-improving quality of life for all, are under threat.
To go back a while. Once upon a time, poor countries, like the poor communities we work with every day, had multi-stranded survival and value creation strategies.   Simply, they produced some food (usually just enough to feed themselves) and traded resources in the global economy.   The latter activity mitigating, to some extent, the failures of the former.  To put it simply we sold goods to feed ourselves when the crops failed. With time, the role and potential of this trading activity has insidiously been subsumed by the increasing domination of all markets by finance capital flows over which poor countries have no significant influence.   Further, with the help of the World Bank and allied agencies, the ability of poor countries to feed their populations has been diminished as agricultural endeavours have been shifted to mitigate failures of the resource trading activities instead of protecting the home economy. This contributing to the populations of ‘undeveloped’ countries being at much greater risk now than at any other time during the last century.
When one adds pollution, mismanagement of resources (water, human, land and mineral), climate change, corruption in all its multi-faceted glory, and the unequal consumption of the world’s goods – all of which are linked in complex feedback loops – one must conclude that the freedoms and rights, of rich and poor, won globally over the last two centuries are threatened. Further, the form of globalisation that has taken root has too many characteristics of laissez-faire, or early robber baron style capitalism, with almost no possibility to punish offenders hidden in the multinational and, too often, virtual corridors of power.
To argue for an international response is trite, and the failure to hold politicians accountable is astounding and can but encourage the worst of them to take more risks. A new leadership, guided by positive values, not afraid of complexity or to wield power, is needed.
Given this bleak analysis, what is to be done?
At one level, global institutions have to be reshaped and strengthened.  The UN, ECB and regional multinational associations have to deal with issues of governance, regulation and enforceable law, which transcends geo-political boundaries.   South Africa, having historically ‘punched above our weight’ must continue to strive to positively influence the systems of global governance.
At a national and regional level, we have to build our ability to nurture ourselves (food, education, health, housing).  This cannot be achieved by turning our backs on the globalised world in which we live, but it has to be done using our resources and value created right here.
We have to recognise the threats to development with the consequent erosion of the rights and freedoms we hold dear.   Our program of work in all our varied organisations must reinforce the developmental agenda, and practically impact both the communities with whom we work, and the policies and practices of government.
From a very high level this task seems too complex and too big. Let us remind ourselves of where we come from. Twentyfive years ago this country was plunged in darkness and violence, living under a State of Emergency. This darkness was all the more stark because it was lit by myriad moral flames held by thousands of mostly small organisations (sports clubs, school committees, trades unions, SRC’s civic associations etc). It was these lights, not simply the ANC or the Nats, that guided us through a relatively peaceful transition of power. The people who wrote our constitution, conceived the TRC and lead us through the first election were the product first of these local or sector specific organisations which had a view of what we needed to be better. Like the leaders of the Arab Spring we might not have had a grasp of the how - and are still learning - but we knew what we wanted in our future. Here today we have graduates from 18 organisations who have put effort into understanding and have worked at the how.
It is easy to start an NPO but many fail – they close or simply compromise their initial purpose to match the imperatives of potential funders. Most of these never achieve much as their focus is not what drives them. Understanding and staying true to focus is necessary for success. A mission and vision embodied in the ethic and passion of the organisation is vital.
At this moment in history funds for NPO’s are shrinking and are constantly being refocused as geopolitical drivers change. Organisations have to adapt to these changes as well as changes in the home environment. Policies and practices of government also evolve and the need for an NPO might intensify or disappear completely – imagine if we no longer needed the Treatment Action Campaign!
In conversation with Brian he raised the need for NPO’s to be competitive. For most this is a difficult concept. Who are you competing against? Often it is another NPO and the measurable are quality of reporting, governance, audit and effectiveness (in that order) and the judge is a funder located far away. In other cases competition involves beating business at it’s own game. An example would be Kuyasa a microfinance entity, focused on housing, whose portfolio at risk has to be better than some banks in order to raise funds. And this has to be achieved serving LSM 1 to 4, with no security and a developmental objective. A more complex operation than any of its commercial competitors.
Effective NPOs have to be well governed by a committed Board, adaptable to changing environments and at the heart of things, be lead by an individual or team with strongly held and appropriate values.
In conclusion another economist, Robert Solow said, “the questions keep changing and the answers even to old questions keep changing as society evolves. That doesn’t mean that we don’t know quite a bit that is useful at any given moment”. Collectively we have the solutions and can choose to reshape our future by adding together the small pieces of knowledge, experience and wisdom we individually carry. Talk to each other!
The solution to the big problems we face is in large numbers of well-governed ngo’s who understand that the power they have has to be used. The third leg of the tripod balancing the SA state has to reclaim its position. Keynes (the economist) spoke of civil society as the “trustees of civilisation”. To be effective trustees we have to speak up when we witness wrongs, give praise when it is due and think constantly about the future.
Thank you.