This World Humanitarian Day (Thursday 19 August), non-profit organisation Inyathelo reminds us of the achievements of ‘ordinary’ South Africans, and the role of community and civil society organisations.
Events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, and the recent civil unrest and looting in KZN-Natal and Gauteng, have been stark reminders of the resilience and roll-up-you-sleeves attitudes of under-the-radar citizens.
In a context of indifference and lawlessness, and underperforming municipal and state institutions, they have contributed to keeping our society functional, and democracy alive.
Individuals and civil society organisations have reminded us of the power of positive action, rather than helpless resignation. There is also greater public awareness of the extraordinary role played by not-for-profit and disaster relief organisations such as Gift of the Givers, which has delivered over R3-billion of aid to 42 countries.
A notable example of community involvement during the COVID-19 lockdown has been the mushrooming of Collective Action Networks (CANs) in neighbourhoods across Cape Town. Many CANs have partnered across long-established geographic and socio-economic boundaries, such as the collaboration between the Sea Point and Gugulethu CANs.
In the words of Gugulethu CAN administrator Pamela Silwana, “We did not wait for government to help us, but showed solidarity.” Working within these organisations in soup kitchens and workshops has given many people, particularly unemployed youth, a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
Mandela Day, too, is traditionally a time when South Africans rally to make a difference in their communities. This year, as noted by President Ramaphosa in his weekly newsletter, “It was a week in which we were confronted by deeply unsettling images of desolate owners standing outside the shells of what was once a thriving business; of looted shops and warehouses; of burning trucks and buildings and streets strewn with debris.”
Such grim pictures were soon replaced by social media images of South Africans, some with the country’s flag painted on their dusty faces, sweeping up glass and rubble and bagging litter. One member of Clean up Durban, which has over 8000 Facebook members, noted, “The biggest problem with the clean ups was that if you did not get there within the first hour, hardly anything was left to do.”
Such citizen activities have been analysed by Flux Trends, a local consultancy that identifies shifts in the way we live and work in the 21st century. The latest edition of its “Tribes” series examines new groupings generated in the wake of the pandemic.
Flex Trends refers to “Patriots”, who are “citizens fed up with a lack of service delivery” and who take over municipal roles. They also refer to “Empaths”, young people whose “empathy radars have been activated” by the pandemic. While life has not been easy for them – many have lost loved ones and income – they volunteer to help others, either singly or working with community organisations.
Another segment, the “Y-Suite” tribe, refers to young people who are not afraid to speak out on social issues. They are increasingly being invited to take part in public leadership platforms once populated by older leaders only.
A key aspect of the force for good among citizens and community organisations has been the rapid adoption of information technology and harnessing social media. This has enabled non-profit organisations to continue operations, and for citizens to network, provided that they can afford sufficient data.
Research into the relationship between social media and democracy in a cross-section of over 125 countries around the world, by Chandan Kumar Jha and Oasic Kodila Tedika, finds evidence of “a strong, positive correlation between Facebook penetration (a proxy for social media) and democracy.” The authors further show that the correlation between social media and democracy is stronger for low-income than high-income countries.
We need to support these freedoms, as the pandemic has offered an opportunity for politicians and law-makers to limit protests and erode civil rights.
This Humanitarian Day it is appropriate that we honour and support those citizens and civil society organisations that have taken a stand in their communities and defended democracy against out-of-control corruption and delivery failure.
Organisations such as Corruption Watch and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, and the work of investigative journalists, have exposed both individual and collective abuses of power.
We are fortunate that South Africa has many well-governed and transparently-run civil society and social justice organisations, as well as fundraising platforms that make it easy for us to support them. As crowdfunder BackaBuddy says, “campaigns that help others, friends or strangers, are powerful reminders of all the good there is in the world.”
Our own non-profit organisation, Inyathelo, offers numerous resources for non-profits and civil society organisations. These include articles, publications, training videos, toolkits and research reports. Most of these can be accessed free, online, and we are also on hand to answer questions and provide advice. We encourage those wanting to make a difference and who wish to address the challenging societal conditions exposed by the lockdown and recent unrest, to make use of such resources.