Where Do Things Stand With That Big Bid to Rescue Constitutionalism in South Africa?

At the beginning of this year, the Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies pooled a collective $25 million to launch the Constitutionalism Fund. In very broad strokes, the fund aims to revive South Africa’s once-lauded democratic progress and prevent it from continuing to backslide into what one critic refers to as the “world’s newest authoritarian democracy.” 

Related: Foundations Put Up Millions to Bolster South Africa’s Endangered Democracy

Since the big announcement, we haven't heard much else. Recently, though, the Ford Foundation announced a $1 million grant to the Alliance for Open Society International, to provide core support for the fund, which is formally dubbed the Joint Fund for Promoting and Advancing Constitutionalism in South Africa.

So far, no word on whether Open Society or Atlantic Philanthropies have put in their share of the $25 million. To be fair, the exact contribution of each organization wasn’t shared with the public at the time of the initial announcement, and it isn’t being shared now. So we’ll focus on what we do know.

South Africa’s current constitution was approved by its Constitutional Court in 1996 and took effect in early 1997. The constitution is still widely considered the most progressive of its kind, but as we noted earlier this year, no one ever said that changing the legal DNA of an entire country would be easy. And South Africa’s democracy has definitely hit some major roadblocks over the past two decades.

According to the most recent Civicus Civil Society Watch Report, South African officials are threatening citizens’ right to free assembly—health workers were recently prosecuted for asserting their right to assemble, and journalists were shot by the police while covering a protest. Incidents such as these aren’t exclusive to South Africa, however—democracy is in trouble worldwide. In fact, democracy is retreating in nearly 100 of the 193 UN member states and authoritarianism is rising.

This is a problem for Ford, Open Society, and the Atlantic Philanthropies, where South Africa’s democracy is concerned. Especially since all three organizations have maintained a presence in the country for decades. The most notable of them is Ford, which has been working in South Africa for over 60 years. Open Society and Atlantic Philanthropies have been in the country for over 20 years each.

Regardless of how long each foundation has been hanging out in South Africa, all three of them have collectively invested millions of dollars into various projects countrywide. They all have a stake in ensuring South Africa’s forward progress, which is what the $25 million Constitutionalism Fund intends to do.