Gwede Mantashe’s recent call for NGOs to publicly disclose their funding sources is a thinly veiled attempt to undermine the crucial work carried out by civil society organisations. This call serves as a diversionary tactic, drawing attention away from the real issues and governance challenges we face. (This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 11 October 2023) 

On Tuesday 10 October, at the Africa Oil Week event in Cape Town, the minister of mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, urged NGOs to reveal their funding sources. He also indirectly accused them of being problematic and baseless in their litigation and challenges, which in turn had a negative impact on investments in energy projects. 

It is vital to reorient Mantashe’s perspective. Instead of scrutinising why NGOs resort to legal action, he should introspect and question why they find it necessary to turn to the courts, invoking the rule of law to halt decisions that are forced on society. 

Mantashe’s obsession with exposing the funders of NGOs is perplexing. Whether or not these NGOs have millions of rands for litigation, research, or operational needs is irrelevant. If these organisations are legally structured and challenge legitimate issues concerning citizens’ rights, Mantashe should be transparent about his motives. His rhetoric is that of a bully, seeking to weaken opponents while possessing ample access to taxpayers’ funds for legal battles. 

Mantashe needs to understand that NGOs prevail in these cases not because they act frivolously or have a desire to squander donors’ funds. Rather, they uphold the Constitution and the rule of law to safeguard citizens from the abuse of power and government malpractice. 

Mantashe’s current outburst echoes past incidents of bullying tactics. His desire to unveil NGO funders is probably an attempt to threaten or coerce government-connected individuals sitting on various boards to intervene and cut off funds to NGOs. This tactic was witnessed in 2012 during the eToll litigation, where pressure was applied to fleet companies funding Outa’s legal battle (known as the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance at the time), weakening the organisation almost to the point of closure. 

This pattern of behaviour from Mantashe illustrates a hubristic and domineering character, demonstrating frustration when things don’t go his way. Instead of undermining NGOs, he should open his doors, invite them in, and strive to understand their perspectives and motivations for their actions. 

Mantashe’s fixation on the funding sources of NGOs is a distraction from the real issues. It is a pretext to stifle dissent and silence the watchdog role of civil society. His focus on certain donor funding foundations is misleading, as these organisations operate transparently, aiming to promote open and just societies aligning with democratic principles. 

South Africa is not alone in facing legal challenges from NGOs. Many countries worldwide experience similar situations. NGOs play a crucial role in protecting democracy and accountability, often challenging those in positions of power. Civil society organisations act as a necessary check and balance on government power — an aspect that should be embraced rather than shunned, as Mantashe has done. 

Given the current state of South Africa’s economy, it is imperative that government officials move beyond divisive rhetoric and collaborate with civil society. This collaboration is vital for achieving the transformation and growth that South Africa desperately needs. It entails embracing the valuable role of NGOs and addressing the root causes of their concerns, rather than fixating on their funding sources.