The economic effects of covid-19 on South Africa’s NGO landscape have resulted in community collaborations across Gauteng to overcome the challenges of the national lockdown.Mothers and children walking kilometres, come rain or shine, to collect a meal was a sight pastor Xana Mccauley agonised over for years while she watched the happenings of the Wednesday soup kitchen. As the co-founder of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has seen 42 years, Mccauley has witnessed her fair share of suffering, and women waking before sunrise to trudge long distances out of desperation for a meal had become a common sight for her.
Situated in the rolling hills of Lanseria, the NGO, a Christian community called Hands of Compassion (HOC), is aptly perched like the haven it is to many. The surrounding area is a mix of lush wedding venues, squatter camps and wide-open pastures. Although the poverty may be isolated in clusters, the need remains glaringly obvious to HOC staff. They service the Diepsloot, Cosmo City, Lanseria, Malachi and Lion Park communities with a Wednesday soup kitchen that draws 70 to100 people.
Then comes the lockdown
Feeding the hungry has, in recent months, not been HOC’s only burden. Slowing the spread of coronavirus became a priority for South Africans after the implementation of level–five lockdown on March 27. The nation’s unexpected exposure to a highly infectious respiratory virus was going to result in many economic challenges for various sectors of the economy. Restaurants, schools and businesses prepared to close, and by the beginning of October, Statistics South Africa reported that 648 000 formal sector jobs had been lost during the covid-19 lockdown.
According to the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), conducted between May 7 and June 27, two out of five adults reported that their household had lost its main source of income. Of 7 025 interviewees, 42% said they had run out of money to buy food by April. The survey made it clear food security in South Africa was threatened by shocking changes to household–incomes.
Food insecurity was already having an impact on six million South Africans, according to health journalism publication Bhekisisa. With a further loss of income came a greater dependence on government and NGOs for food security and grants, to stand in the gap and address people’s needs.
With widespread economic hardship following in the wake of the covid lockdown, HOC experienced a drop in its monthly debit order donations after its onset. Not only were the Wednesday soup kitchens at stake, but more than 60 others across Gauteng too. The HOC children’s home, young mothers’ home and rehabilitation programme, which are all situated at the main HOC complex, had to be maintained somehow.
Pantry stock and human touch at risk — generosity and technology save the day
Pastor McCauley told Wits Vuvuzela they lost many faithful givers whose donations had been the backbone of the organisation’s budget. Congregants from the home church, Rhema Bible Church, who had committed to monthly increments, were unable to fulfil those obligations. Although the church may be perceived by many of the public to be for the middle to upper class, with a well-off congregation, the financial effects of lockdown were nevertheless evident, although it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly disrupted the flow of monthly donations.
Thankfully, the initial panic of not meeting budget was eased by an unexpected spike in once-off donations. This supplemented HOC’s pantry stock losses that were substantial due to two local Woolworths stores not being able to donate as much of their sell-by goods as they had prior to lockdown. This resulted in a drop of up to 50% of stock in HOC’s pantry. Mccauley describes their survival despite such lockdown blows by saying, ‘‘Again, I see God’s hand helping us through this period”.
Financial woes aside, the human connection aspect of NGO work was also jeopardised. As the soup kitchen model had to be revolutionised to adapt to social distancing measures, people could not be given prepared meals. HOC decided to send e-vouchers to the 70-100 people who would ordinarily collect Wednesday meals. This meant they would be able to purchase whatever they needed, on their own.
Two weeks before national lockdown, McCauley instructed her staff to write down the details of all those who regularly attended: “When I heard that this thing [covid-19] was coming, I said to my staff, ‘You take their ID or passport numbers. You take their cellphone numbers and explain that we want to continue giving, but we must do it via their cellphone’,” the pastor said.
The effectiveness of the e-voucher scheme is yet to be evaluated by HOC staff. They plan to visit beneficiaries soon, to assess whether their circumstances have improved in terms of health, financial independence and overall lifestyle. As the plan is to reassign funds, should a family no longer need them, challenges remain for this new way of resource distribution. Buying airtime and ensuring new beneficiaries have cellular devices that are charged, as well as access to a participating e-voucher supermarket, are hurdles yet to be overcome.
There seems to be a trend towards making use of digital technologies to help people. According to an extensive report published by South Africa’s Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) on May 29, the Department of Social Development (DSD) partnered with NGOs to assist anyone who needed to apply for the R350 disaster relief grant. This collaboration was intended to help anyone without access to a phone or technological means of applying.
As reported in a Daily Maverick article on September 30, the NIDS-CRAM survey, states that this grant has reached 4.4 million South Africans, or 12% of the country’s adult population. The article further reports that 62% of grant applicants were still unemployed by June. These funds are therefore an important form of assistance to broad swathes of South African society.
Another organisation that seeks to support food security and future independence for beneficiaries is Joint Aid Management (JAM). Established in 1984, as a Christian-based organisation that heads up child–feeding programmes for 120 000 people in nine of South Africa’s 11 provinces, JAM operates in Gauteng in Orange Farm, Soweto, the Johannesburg CBD, Hammanskraal and Pretoria.
During this year, JAM also had to adjust its food distribution model as a result of South Africa’s lockdown regulations. During the beginning of lockdown, lines for food parcels would last for hours, sparking the idea to send SMS notifications to families to collect their packages. These collections would happen at local preschools, spaza shops and churches during a specific time window, with social–distancing measures in place.
“We said, ‘how do we build back into those communities, and how can we use the small spaza shop and the preschool as a distribution point?’ We would get the food to them and they would get paid for the distribution on our behalf, which put something back into the community bodies,’’ David Brown, JAM’s managing director, told Wits Vuvuzela. ‘’That improved things, so there was still some funding in that local economy rather than all going out of it and into the big wholesalers.”
Brown notes that because of South Africa’s strong GDP per capita, emergency funding had been sourced within the country, as opposed to the disaster relief which JAM has seen occur in other African countries such as Rwanda or Mozambique, which required international funders.
A change JAM anticipates going forward will be the branding of spaza shops under larger retailers, so that purchasing power and supply chains are brought into lower–income communities. Brown says this process was previously under way, but it has been accelerated by covid-19. Transparency with donors became a priority during this time.
Managing the trust of the donors was of paramount importance, because they wanted to be assured their money was being used in the most effective ways. Brown said some donors allowed JAM to use donations at its own discretion, while others were particular about their donation being for a specific resource.
“We must respect that we have to be transparent, because we must maintain trust with people,’’ said Brown. ‘The minute that breaks down , the chances are that the funding will be withdrawn and it’s going to be placed somewhere else where there is trust.” JAM had to repurpose its funding to accommodate the disaster relief circumstances imposed on them during lockdown. This meant partnering with other organisations that were transporting food, rather than using the infrastructures they normally would.
“This meant our vehicles were not running and we were not recovering the capital with fixed costs that we would normally recover from donor funding,” said Brown. Brown emphasised that although emergency funding had compensated for any part of donations that did not come in, the possibility that this type of funding could dig into donor funds, and not match the needs of normal programming costs, remained.
Tithes and offerings for public benefit
Public benefit organisations such as churches were not left out of the loop, as far as e-giving was concerned. Rhema Faith Life Church, based in Bosmont, also made the move to e-wallets. Lead pastor Lester Holland told Wits Vuvuzela that because some congregants suffered retrenchment, salary cuts and other personal financial challenges, 25% of tithes and offerings fell away. Families attending the church also needed sudden financial assistance and the church was able to support congregants with electronic payments.
The Citizen published an article at the end of May reporting that the South African Council of Churches, which unites 36-member organisations countrywide, had requested financial assistance from government. As church income had been negatively affected, salaries and other church expenses could not be met.
Unfortunately, Rhema Faith Life church’s annual blanket drive was disrupted because of restricted mobility during lockdown and a smaller amount of funding. Pastor Holland said, however, that Northcliff Spar donated food items to the church. Volunteers collected the items individually and distributed them from their homes. This was a saving grace for those in need at the church and an unexpected solution to a lockdown curveball that hit them.
“For us personally, we know we do not have any emergency fund. You know one thing about a church is that it is a public benefit organisation,’’ said Holland. ‘‘Whatever comes in always goes out to help people. There is more expenditure than what is coming in. Us having an account where we are setting aside finances that we would use for future, is definitely my thinking.”
Holland told Wits Vuvuzela the staff of the church had to take a salary cut, and he was not necessarily aware of any government assistance for employees involved in religious ministry.
Crowdfunding and community-collaboration means light at the end of the tunnel
This highlights a point brought up in the text, Adapting to Covid-19: Experiences of a Philanthropy Infrastructure Organisation, by Gill Bates and Louise Denysschen, which states, “Moving funds during the pandemic also highlighted the gaps in current compliance criteria, which excluded community-based organisations (CBOs) and small volunteer organisations and movements, which were clearly doing critical work on the ground, yet lacked the expertise, time, and resources to do the compliance work.”.
As the push towards digital technologies plays a role in the NGO economy, crowdfunding facilitator BackaBuddy told Wits Vuvuzela that people were surprisingly generous during lockdown and continued giving, as more causes were registered on their website and more funds were paid into them.
“NGOs have turned to crowdfunding as another form of funding. A lot of the charities used to rely on events for fundraising purposes, for example, the Comrades/Argus etcetera, but with lockdown the events were cancelled or postponed,” said BackaBuddy’s social media manager, Wanda Zwane.
Navigating lockdown became a matter of survival at every level of life. Individuals, families, organisations and the country at large were moved by these adaptations. The concept of gathering funds together incrementally, to disperse for the benefit of others, is how the NGO economy has managed to survive. It is much less about the survival of organisations and more about those they serve.
The social contact challenges presented by lockdown were fertile soil for NGOs to approach food security from an entirely new perspective. The e-voucher is a solution born out of the interesting collaboration between the spirit of ubuntu, the idea that “I am, because you are”, and the saturation of cellphone technology, within even the poorest communities.
As buying power, technological advancement and financial autonomy have the potential to become the new norm, it seems the NGO economy has found a way to create sustainable solutions. As seen in the examples cited here, this depends on preparedness, access to funding and an established relationship with communities as prerequisites for an effective covid-19 response.
FEATURED IMAGE: Hands of Compassion chef, Thoko Mdluli, wearing her cloth mask while working in their kitchen. Photo: Leah Wilson.