Now more than ever, NGOs must be embraced

therinaOpinion piece by Therina Wentzel, the National Director of the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities.

In a troubled year, it is more important than ever that we help those who help others

We’re halfway through 2017, and already this year will be remembered as the one when government became an incapable partner to society.

The state and its ability to effectively deliver services have been torn apart by cronyism, greed and corruption. Adding to the bad news is the fact the economy is now in recession.

Its descent into a kind of uncaring paralysis has been carefully documented over the past few years.

The near-collapse of certain sections of the state has increased the burden on civil society groups to mediate the anger felt by a nation that has come to see itself as uncared for.

As things stand NGOs, civil society groupings and other non-state players play an enormous role in filling in the gaps where the state has no capacity or desire to care for our society’s most vulnerable citizens.

There have been stunning examples of this in 2017. In February, the horror of the death of more than 100 mental health patients was revealed.

In a move to cut costs, the state had farmed out hundreds of patients to care facilities in Gauteng that were not adequately staffed or equipped to take care of mental health patients. In doing so it ignored warnings, and the results were predictably horrific: in some instances not only was there no licence to operate such homes, but there was not even enough food or water. Patients starved to death over days in some instances.

Months after the Health Ombud gave his recommendations to fix the mess, progress is still painfully slow. This inhumane tragedy will remain a stain on the state’s track record of respecting the basic human rights of citizens placed in its care.

In March, there was great doubt cast over whether social grants would be paid at all on April 1 after corruption and incompetence in the Department of Social Development and its grant-paying agency, Sassa, were unpacked once more in the Constitutional Court.

More than 17-million South Africans rely on the state for social grants. The attitude of the state – which dithered so much about resolving the matter that the only workable solution was to extend a grant-paying contract that had been declared illegal by the courts – was startling and cavalier.

The uncertainty over the the state’s ability to meet its grant obligations had a knock-on effect on NGOs.

Many NGOs are wholly dependent on the state for their funding; yet, as Vorster notes in her report, the relationship between the state, NGOs and civil society has eroded, and is in many instances hostile.

The strike and its effects left beneficiaries stranded, unsure of how to pay their staff or their suppliers. Those who care for at-risk children, persons with disabilities and the frail were left totally exposed to potential tragedy through the loss of, or damage to, human life.

What is worse than the loss or putting at risk of human life? What society can heal from a history of horror and hurt, when it lives with this on its conscience from day to day?

The outpouring of anger and grief over the epidemic of violence against women and children in the past month shows that South Africans are not numb, as we are so often told we are. We do care, and we need to continue to care. We need to create agency for ourselves if we are to change our society, which allows too much of the burden of our social ills to be carried by an NGO sector that hangs by a gossamer thread.

We cannot and should not ghetto-ise violence against women. We cannot sit by and let superstition threaten persons with disabilities and albinism. We should not isolate our community members who are mentally ill so that when they are in crisis, no one is there to see and act. And we must act to protect our children, who are our future.

The loss of human life as a result of a society that has forgotten how to care for all of its members, is unacceptable. Building an inclusive society begins when everyone is taken into account, and there is a place for all in the sunshine.

It is not an accident that neglect and violence coalesce around our most vulnerable citizens. It is well documented that children with disabilities have access to fewer resources, and are neglected, abused and sexually exploited more often than other children.

This happens because no space is created for their voices or for their faces.

Daily, we witness the inequity in our country. At the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities, we confront the heart-breaking – but also life-affirming – stories of South Africans of all walks of life.

Fortunately, the council does not have to rely solely on the state for funding even though they are an important funder. We are able to supplement the money we do get from the state and from our partnerships with some government departments with income from our national fundraiser Casual Day. We are very grateful to the thousands of South Africans who participate and continue to support Casual Day on the first Friday every September. But other NGOs are not as lucky, and they need support to carry on the vital work they do.

Now more than ever, it is up to every South African to embrace the NGOs around them and to lighten their load, by increasing their own involvement in caring for those in need in their own neighbourhoods and cities.

Our Constitution and Bill of Rights afford us many protections and freedoms, but they are rendered meaningless until each citizen takes action to ensure that their family members, their schools, their neighbourhoods – all of our citizens – are able to access their rights and protections.

About the Author

Able online

Hi, I’m Able the Casual Day mascot and ambassador for disability. I encourage you to see the ABILITY in people and not the dis-ABILITY. We’re all able, we can all live our fullest lives if the barriers are removed. Join me each year, on the first Friday of September and raise funds to support organisations that render services in the field of disability. This year Casual Day falls on Friday, 7 September. Your donation of R10 for a sticker makes a difference and improves lives all across South Africa.

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