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Delene Mark explains the role which faith-based organisations play in terms of social development in South Africa, as well as their importance to so many in the country

South Africa is a big and diverse country with people from many cultures and traditions, beautiful landscapes, and, for some, a place with infinite opportunity. It is also a country of extremes. We are a proud nation which can be seen when we cheer our national sports teams, when we sing our anthem, and celebrate our national braai day. On the other extreme, we witness far too often a violent and hurting society, poor service delivery, and a weakened justice system.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world with a very high unemployment rate, which leaves millions to live in abject poverty. Food insecurity, lack of access to decent healthcare and education, and poor housing only creates a cycle of generational poverty that many people are unable to break.

The South African government has various programmes to assist with job creation and poverty eradication, but needs to have active partnership with civil society and the business sector in a coordinated way so that jointly we can break the cycle of poverty.

The government cannot do this alone and we see this evidence in some of the large international aid programmes that contract with civil society organisations for their implementation.

Addressing poverty in South Africa is a complex and multi-faceted challenge that requires comprehensive and coordinated efforts from various stakeholders, including the government, civil society organisations, businesses, and communities.

Creating an enabling environment for economic growth and promoting job creation is crucial for poverty reduction. This involves implementing supportive economic policies, attracting investments, promoting entrepreneurship, and providing vocational training and skills development programmes to enhance employability.

Access to quality education is vital for breaking the cycle of poverty. It is crucial to invest in early childhood development, improve the quality of basic education, enhance technical and vocational training, and promote lifelong learning opportunities. Ensuring equitable access to education, especially for marginalised communities, is essential.

Expanding and strengthening social protection programmes is crucial for addressing poverty. This includes providing income support, social grants, and safety nets to vulnerable populations, such as the unemployed, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Targeted interventions should focus on reaching those most in need.

Access to quality healthcare services is fundamental in reducing poverty. Addressing healthcare disparities, improving primary healthcare infrastructure, ensuring affordable and accessible healthcare services, and promoting preventive healthcare measures are key components. Special attention should be given to addressing HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other prevalent diseases.

Enhancing agricultural productivity, supporting small-scale farmers, promoting sustainable farming practices, and investing in rural infrastructure are essential for reducing poverty in rural areas. This includes improving access to markets, irrigation systems, credit facilities, and agricultural extension services.

Gender inequality exacerbates poverty. Efforts should focus on promoting women’s empowerment, gender equality, and addressing gender-based violence. Providing access to education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and leadership positions for women are crucial for poverty reduction.

Promoting social cohesion, community participation, and empowerment is vital in addressing poverty. Encouraging community-led development initiatives, strengthening local institutions, promoting participatory decision-making processes, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders can lead to more effective poverty alleviation efforts.

Poverty in South Africa is closely tied to historical and structural inequalities. It is crucial to address issues such as land reform, unequal access to resources, spatial segregation, and racial disparities. Promoting inclusive policies and addressing systemic barriers is necessary to achieve sustainable poverty reduction.

Faith-based organisations (FBOs) play a significant role in local community development in various ways. Their specific activities and impact may vary, depending on the organisation and its religious affiliation, however, there are many similarities.

FBOs often provide essential social services and welfare programmes to meet the needs of vulnerable populations within their communities. These can include food security programmes like food parcel distribution and soup kitchens, shelters for the homeless, healthcare clinics, counselling services, and educational programmes. Many early childhood development centres or creches are started and run out of church halls.

It is in the very identity of all FBOs to call on its members to be charitable and reach out to address the needs in the community. Very often there are food drives, clothing drives, cash collection, etc. at the local community level available to help people in need. FBOs call on their members to volunteer their time, so this volunteerism reduces the need for large overheads.

FBOs also engage in disaster response and relief efforts, quite often being the first help to a community in need. As many FBOs do not have large bureaucratic structures, they can act swiftly and directly with affected communities. One can see this right now with the cold and wet extreme winter conditions in the Western Cape, where churches are drop off points for blankets, food, and clothes. Church halls are also safe havens when communities are displaced.

FBOs frequently engage in poverty alleviation initiatives, working to address the root causes of poverty and promote economic empowerment. They may offer job training programmes, microfinance initiatives, vocational skills development, and entrepreneurship support to help individuals and families improve their socioeconomic status.

Many FBOs emphasise education and skill-building initiatives as a means to uplift communities. They establish schools, literacy programmes, vocational training centers, and scholarship schemes to enhance access to quality education. FBOs may also provide mentorship, leadership development, and life skills training to empower individuals.

FBOs often prioritise healthcare services, including medical clinics, mobile health units, and health education programmes. They may raise awareness about preventive healthcare practices, offer counselling and support for mental health issues, and address specific health concerns prevalent within their communities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the reliance on the faith sector to provide food, healthcare packs, and information was huge. The set up and implementation of the solidarity fund was successful in part due to the reliance on the FBOs for on the ground service delivery. FBOs supplemented the allocated funds by the government to feed people, keep them safe, and also provide emotional support. FBOs kept their members up to date on the virus, where to seek help, how to keep safe, and, most importantly, positive messaging about the safety of the vaccine.

FBOs frequently advocate for social justice, human rights, and equality within their communities. They may support marginalised groups, promote gender equality, combat discrimination, and work to eliminate societal injustices. FBOs often serve as voices for the voiceless and promote inclusive and compassionate societies.

During the apartheid era, there was a significant role that the faith sector played in calling for justice and liberation in South Africa. We also witness the role of the faith sector since then in marches and demonstrations with calls for peace in South Africa. The faith sector has been instrumental in leading the call for an end to Gender-Based Violence and femicide in South Africa, and this commitment to act is also in partnership with the South Africa government’s National Strategic Plan to end Gender-Based Violence.

FBOs contribute to community building by fostering social cohesion, promoting interfaith dialogue, and creating spaces for interaction and cooperation among diverse groups. They organise community events, cultural celebrations, and dialogue sessions to foster understanding, respect, and cooperation among different religious and ethnic communities.

FBOs offer moral and spiritual support to their congregations and the wider community. They provide counselling, pastoral care, and guidance on ethical and spiritual matters. FBOs often promote values such as compassion, forgiveness, and social responsibility, which can contribute to the overall well-being and character development of individuals and communities.

It’s important to note that the specific roles and impact of FBOs can vary based on their size, resources, and the specific context in which they operate. Additionally, while FBOs bring unique strengths and perspectives to community development, collaboration and partnership with other secular organisations and government agencies can further enhance their effectiveness and reach.

Delene Mark is the CEO of Hope Africa.