Foundations Put Up Millions to Bolster South Africa's Endangered Democracy

It’s been over 20 years since the adoption of the South African constitution, still widely considered the most progressive of its kind. But no one ever said that changing the legal DNA of an entire country would be easy, and it hasn't been. A report by Human Rights Watch a few years ago said, "South Africa continues to grapple with corruption, growing social and economic inequalities, and the weakening of state institutions by partisan appointments and one-party dominance."

Translation: Not only are this country's biggest problems going unsolved, it's slipping backwards. One critic has already dubbed South Africa the "world's newest authoritarian democracy."

In the interest of reviving South Africa's forward progress, the Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies have thrown in for a collective $25 million to launch the Constitutionalism Fund. The Open Society Foundations and Atlantic Philanthropies have had a presence in South Africa for over 20 years, and the Ford Foundation for 60. So the challenges facing South Africa are anything but new to these funders. And, after spending millions over decades, all have a big stake in how the South Africa story turns out. 

The new initiative aims to get South Africa back on the right path by zeroing in on governance issues. The premise is that the country will never achieve the egalitarian ideals embodied in its constitution if it can't ensure the rule of law, and the transparency and accountability that such rule entails. 

The Constitutionalism Fund will depend on an independent local selection panel to carry out its mission. The panel will advise the foundations on allocating the fund’s resources to South Africa organizations. The fund plans to provide support for three to four grant funding cycles over a period of 10 years, focusing its giving on organizations that:

  • Advance constitutionalism
  • Help sustain constitutional advances made
  • Demonstrate strong leadership and commitments to racial and gender transformation in SA
  • Forward innovative ideas to advance constitutionalism
  • Encourage collaboration with other civil and social movements
  • Demonstrate financial transparency
  • Have independent governance and oversight structures
  • Have established and effective evaluation measures
  • Are able to build capacity and address long-term sustainability in its programming

So what we're talking about, here, is a plan to pump millions into groups to create a truly multi-faceted campaign for reform. 

When you read over allegations surrounding some big-name government officials in South Africa—which include corruption, money laundering, murder, and kidnapping—you can see where the sense of urgency for this project comes from. And you can also appreciate how challenging the job ahead is. Take a look at the 2015 report on South Africa by Human Rights Watch to get a sense of the many problems that confront reformers. 

Of course, the situation in South Africa is hardly unique. Democracy is in trouble all over the world. As the Economist noted in a cover story last year, "Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes." 

South Africa is well on its way to becoming a case study of that failed promise. Can the biggest philanthropic backers of a democratic South Africa help turn things around? Who knows? But there's no way they can't try, and on a major level.