Power cor­rupts – even in our re­spected NGOs

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis -

Ours is a land of the dis­pos­sessed. A land of the land­less. A land of yearn­ing and hope. A land of pain and anguish. A land of mil­lions strug­gling with the bro­ken prom­ises of lib­er­a­tion, ev­i­denced in the hun­dreds of peo­ple around the coun­try who gath­ered this week to tell their sto­ries about the land from which they draw life while still hold­ing them locked in the choke­hold of his­tory. Al­though we can blame a puni­tive global eco­nomic sys­tem for some of our fail­ures to bring proper eco­nomic re­dress to our peo­ple, we must also ad­mit the fail­ures that con­tinue to be per­pet­u­ated through­out so­ci­ety.

One is a fail­ure to check power wher­ever it man­i­fests it­self.

At a re­cent meet­ing with ed­i­tors, Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the work of the me­dia in the ex­po­sure of state cap­ture. Many in the gov­ern­ment, the pres­i­dent seemed to say, had no idea it was that bad. The Star this week re­ported that an ANC doc­u­ment sim­i­larly claims the ANC has been shocked by the ex­tent of cor­rup­tion.

While they re­cover from their shock, it is the news me­dia that con­tinue to re­port fear­lessly on wrong­do­ing, malfea­sance and in­ef­fi­ciency in the pub­lic sec­tor. By re­port­ing the news that ex­poses the cor­rupt and the in­ept, we de­mand bet­ter of our pub­lic of­fi­cials.

But the me­dia has not done this alone.

Civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions have also been in­stru­men­tal in do­ing this. Whether it is en­sur­ing the state ful­fils its re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide safe and reli­able trans­port to pupils who would oth­er­wise have to walk for hours to go to school, en­sur­ing the gov­ern­ment pro­vides an­tiretro­vi­rals to peo­ple in­fected with HIV, or tire­lessly cam­paign­ing for Par­lia­ment to recog­nise the demo­cratic im­per­a­tive for the trans­parency of po­lit­i­cal party fund­ing, South Africa would be left poorer with­out the work of th­ese non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions (NGOs).

Their work is im­por­tant and must con­tinue to be guarded, es­pe­cially, as has hap­pened in the past, when they come un­der at­tack from elected of­fi­cials who seek to smear them.

But it is a tribute to their own suc­cesses that th­ese voices are si­lenced by the ur­gency of ac­tual work done, work that has strength­ened South Africans and, in many cases, has ac­tu­ally en­hanced the work of their crit­ics.

So the NGO sec­tor, which of course is not ho­moge­nous, has amassed con­sid­er­able power. Yes, it has done so over years of hard and ad­mirable work but power can lead to abuse of power.

Now, as the Mail & Guardian turns its fo­cus to al­le­ga­tions of abuse of power in the NGO space, our work has been met with hos­til­ity, re­sent­ment and sus­pi­cion. And it has left us per­plexed.

Surely, the role of the me­dia as an agent of democ­racy ought to be un­der­stood by the very peo­ple who are work­ing to deepen that democ­racy. What has emerged in­stead is an ex­pec­ta­tion that we should ig­nore al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing within NGOs lest it scup­per the im­por­tant work of th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions. It’s very much like the ANC say­ing we ought not to re­port on the fact that the or­gan­i­sa­tion is in sham­bles be­cause Nel­son Man­dela spent 26 years on Robben Is­land.

Surely the good work of an NGO ought to be able to stand up to scru­tiny of the be­hav­iour of peo­ple with whom it is as­so­ci­ated. Surely the same peo­ple who have de­pended on us to bring at­ten­tion to their cam­paigns un­der­stand that it is the same ethics and val­ues that are used when we re­port about them.

To sug­gest that an en­tire news­room, all its re­porters and ed­i­tors, are act­ing at the be­hest of some­one’s grudge is asi­nine.

We seek to re­mind all the peo­ple who have sought to thwart the M&G’s re­port­ing on al­le­ga­tions of bul­ly­ing, sex­ual ha­rass­ment, si­lenc­ing and as­sault that it re­ports on NGOs ac­cord­ing to the same prin­ci­ples it has used to re­port on Ja­cob Zuma and the Gup­tas.

Re­spon­si­ble re­port­ing is a re­quire­ment of our ex­is­tence as a pub­lisher of news. It is our lifeblood. But our edi­to­rial in­de­pen­dence is also cru­cial to our abil­ity to con­tinue as a news pub­lisher in the ser­vice of democ­racy.

Edi­to­rial in­de­pen­dence is the free­dom of ed­i­tors to make de­ci­sions with­out in­ter­fer­ence from the own­ers of a pub­li­ca­tion. Edi­to­rial in­de­pen­dence is tested when a pub­li­ca­tion runs ar­ti­cles that may be un­pop­u­lar with its ad­ver­tis­ing clien­tele or crit­i­cal of its own­er­ship.

Edi­to­rial in­de­pen­dence is un­der­mined when board mem­bers of NGOs con­tact the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a news pub­lisher, or rep­re­sen­ta­tives of its own­ers, in an at­tempt to sway a story. Edi­to­rial in­de­pen­dence is par­tic­u­larly dis­re­garded when an ed­i­tor of an­other pub­li­ca­tion con­tacts an owner in an at­tempt to sway the fo­cus of re­port­ing on in­di­vid­u­als as­so­ci­ated with par­tic­u­lar NGOs. Th­ese are un­demo­cratic ten­den­cies.

The M&G will con­tinue to re­port on al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing in NGOs just as it does on al­le­ga­tions of wrong­do­ing at the South African Rev­enue Ser­vice and Eskom. We do so be­cause ev­ery space cre­ated to serve South Africans must be mon­i­tored. And ev­ery space in which power ac­crues must be held to ac­count.

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