On the one hand funding has dried up as a result of the global recession. On the other hand, political paranoia is strangling them to death.
According to a paper published by the research and strategy firm Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), South Africa “has an extensive and lively non-governmental sector which boasts roughly 100 000 registered NPOs and an estimated 50 000 unregistered ones”.
Researchers have found that civil society is most active in countries with high levels of inequality.
They are vitally important in an evolving democratic society to help the government in its delivery mandate where the government cannot reach, to provide much needed aid in various forms to the poor, to monitor and oppose human rights and other abuses, and to help safeguard the socio-economic rights of citizens as enshrined in the constitution.
Like the media, they are almost always disliked by those in power.
The apartheid government mostly took a dim view of them, believing they aided and abetted those opposed to apartheid.
Many of them did in fact work closely with organisations aligned to the then still exiled and banned African National Congress through the United Democratic Front.
That situation has changed dramatically. Now that the ANC is in power and, like its National Party predecessor views civil society with suspicion.
As Lauren Stuart, author of CAI's research paper puts it: “Under apartheid, independent civil society was the voice of resistance, and as a result was criticised and discriminated against by the government.”
Organisations associated with the ANC and its governing allies, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, are particularly opposed to civil society groups which have grown critical of the ANC government or have opposed some of its more contentious policy and legislative programmes.
Among these organisations are: the Treatment Action Campaign which fought successfully for the rights of HIV-positive people to receive state-supplied antiretroviral medication; the Right2Know campaign which is opposed to the government’s draconian Protection of State Information Bill; and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, which took the government to court to try and stop the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project.
The wrath of Sadtu, and especially of its general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, was aimed primarily at the only organisation he was willing to name, Section 27, which twice took the national basic education department to court last year over the non-delivery of textbooks in Limpopo.
There are of course many other largely charitable organisations, some providing humanitarian aid, fulfilling a role the government is unable to do on its own.
Among these is the Muslim-orientated Gift of the Givers Foundation, Africa’s largest disaster relief organisation.
They have delivered more than R800 million in aid to 37 countries around the world.
The growth of the sector has led to moves to make them more accountable, the first being the Non-profit Organisations Act of 1997 designed to set out the role of NPOs. However, instead of creating an enabling environment, the sector complains that the law, together with various government policy developments are hindering them in carrying out their mandates.
With the onset of the global financial crisis private and international funding appeared to be drying up, especially as large corporates cut back on social investment budgets.
As a result the sector increasingly relies on the government's funding, which threatens their independence.
The issue came to the fore in January when the government deregistered 36 488 NGOs.
As they need a registration number to raise funds, these NPOs were left high and dry.
But some, like Alexander O'Riordan, an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding researcher, say it is a myth that the money is drying up.
Quoting from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data he says aid to CSOs in South Africa increased from R3 billion in 2002 to R10.75 billion in 2011.
But in 2011, out of the total R10.75 billion, only R188 million actually went to what the OECD classifies as national, local or regional NGOs.
O'Riordan theorises that South Africa's civil society is in trouble because “they trusted the good intentions of foreign donors without lobbying for their specific organisational interests and secondly, they have mistaken rhetoric on democratisation for action”.
He argues that large international NPOs are better equipped and more experienced at lobbying for funds.
He cites examples like the International Rescue Committee and World Vision. Their heads earn millions a year, often a point of criticism against these organisations.
Meanwhile one of South Africa’s most respected organisations, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), launched by the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine some 20 years ago as a democratisation and rights organisation, closed down in March this year.
According to a report in the Bdlive website, executive director at Idasa, Paul Graham, blamed it on a lack of funding.
Finally, some activists are raising the alarm over the latest government moves to create a new policy and legislation for NPOs.
They claim the Department of Social Development only consulted a very small number of organisations about a new 'policy framework on non-profit organisations law”, including various proposed amendments to the existing 1997 NPO Act.
There are strong suspicions in the sector that these moves were informed by an ANC resolution adopted at its Mangaung national elective conference in December which sought, among others, to introduce more effective regulation and control of the sector.
Some question the government’s motives and, while acknowledging the need for accountability and good governance, see this as a move to curtail the independence of civil society.