Children wait in linesat a crèche in Langa, Cape Town to receive a meal, which will include soup made by Woodstock Breweries, which is part of a project to feed people made vulnerable under the lockdown. Picture: RODGER BOSCH / AFP)
Children wait in linesat a crèche in Langa, Cape Town to receive a meal, which will include soup made by Woodstock Breweries, which is part of a project to feed people made vulnerable under the lockdown. Picture: RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

Kelly du Plessis, CEO of nonprofit organisation (NGO) Rare Diseases, will pay her nine staff members for the last time at the end of this month. And then “we’re done”, she says.

Du Plessis’s organisation, which has helped patients with overwhelming illnesses gain access to expensive medical care for the past seven years, is luckier than some other NGOs. Unlike many, it has at least had a three-month salary buffer, which has now run out.

The fate of Rare Diseases is likely to be shared by many of SA’s 228,550 registered NGOs which are battling to survive, even though their roles have become far more vital than before for SA’s most vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Du Plessis and Lauren Pretorius, CEO of another NGO, Campaigning for Cancer, both say funding for the sector has taken a hit as many large companies have redirected donations to the Solidarity Fund. That fund, which has raised R2.2bn, provides health workers with protective gear, helps feed the hungry and pays for addition laboratory and testing capacity.

One reason for the switch in funding, Pretorius believes, is that businesses get large tax deductions when donating to the fund. But donations from individuals have also dried up, while fundraising events have been cancelled.

So severe has it become that, at the end of April, the leaders of three NGOs – Du Plessis, Marc Lubner, CEO of Afrika Tikkun and Hedley Lewis, CEO of the Smile Foundation – wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa, asking him to set up a “war room” to help their sector survive. The sector had, in fact, asked for just that sort of support structure in March, before the first confirmed case of the coronavirus reached SA.

But while the department of social development acknowledged receipt of the letter, which was signed by more than 350 people, Ramaphosa’s office didn’t respond to it.

The letter warns: “If [the NPO sector] ceases to exist, we will no longer be able to partner with government to serve the millions of South Africans who so desperately need our support.”

While the government has put in place a R500bn bailout plan, no financial support has been set aside specifically for NGOs.

The letter says: “For civil society to continue, we call on government to … stabilise the sector and create a sustainable environment for our teams to endure. Financial support and war rooms have been made available to numerous sectors, ranging from the travel sector to the textile sector and the events industry.”

But, the signatories say, the NGO sector, “upon which millions of disenfranchised and underprivileged South Africans depend for assistance daily, has been overlooked”.

Du Plessis and Pretorius warn that 1-million people employed by the sector could lose their jobs too. They calculated this after canvassing 3,000 NGOs through various surveys and concluding that each organisation employed on average four people.

“With a minimum of 228,580 [NGOs] registered with the department of social development, each with an average of four employees, 1-million jobs are in jeopardy, equating to six times the projected losses to the mining sector,” the letter says.

It is possible that the 1-million job tally is an overestimate, as some NGOs may be registered but not operate. But on the other side of the coin, there are many unregistered charities that run soup kitchens or day-care facilities and are probably also struggling.

It also couldn’t have happened at a worse time, since this is exactly when those organisations are needed the most.

For example, the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), which provides telephone counselling, says its call volumes have soared from about 600 a day to more than 1,200 daily. Many of those callers have lost their jobs, are anxious about their future or are struggling to handle isolation.

Claw, an animal and human welfare charity on the West Rand, has experienced a huge increase in the surrender of family pets because, the organisation says, “it’s [become] a choice between feeding animals and feeding people”.

Sadag operations manager Cassey Chambers says while many NGOs want to help distribute food parcels during the pandemic, “we seem to be invisible” to the government. “Talk to us, Mr President; hear us. We can make delivery work for you and for all our citizens if you would just be prepared to let us help. Why reinvent the wheel? We are civil society, and civil society is desperate to help,” she says.

Many NGOs have the sort of grassroots network that could be used by the government to target the delivery of education, food and information. “Claw, for example, has worked within very needy West Rand communities for more than two decades, and knows in granular detail exactly which families are the hungriest and which grannies have the most children in their care,” Chambers says.

Pretorius says the NGOs can’t do this unless they get enough funding to pay staff – and simply to buy fuel.

Lumka Oliphant, spokesperson for the department of social development, tells the FM that every sector is struggling. “The department has a budget of R7.6bn … for provinces to transfer to NGOs in the social development sector. A circular will be transmitted to provincial departments ... to start transferring funds.”

But if this is done with the lack of urgency that has characterised the government’s other Covid-19 interventions, it may be too late for the likes of Rare Diseases.