Birthday wishes from the Open Society Foundations Network

OSF-SA works extensively with and benefits from the expertise of geographic and thematic partners from across the Open Society Foundations network, who are in South Africa celebrating with us. Read more about their work and reflections on the work of the Open Society Foundation in South Africa.

Public Health Program

Twenty years ago, the language of human rights used in the context of South Africa’s AIDS crisis resonated across the Global South, resulting in a powerful social movement for access to medicines. This social movement and related activism, set the stage for what global human rights and health advocacy, including beyond HIV, has looked like ever since. Since those early days, OSF-SA along with the Public Health Program has supported organisations at the centre of this global medicine access movement to bring a human rights framing, grounded in the South African Constitution, on health rights. By changing what was possible in AIDS treatment in South Africa, activists changed what was thought impossible in many other countries. They were key advisors to the establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM) and played a key role in setting up international organisations focused on treatment equity across borders. Today, South African health rights activists continue this tradition by leading the call for increased political and financial commitments globally for tuberculosis and cancer medicines and treatment.

South Africa’s powerful blend of health and human rights advocacy is also evident in the field of protecting sex worker rights. Efforts to protect sex workers from violence through a dedicated national campaign to decriminalise sex work have elevated demands for sex worker rights in South Africa, and across the rest of the African continent. In South Africa, sex workers are increasingly present in legal, labour and health policy discussions that affect them. Organisations in South Africa have led creative campaigns, targeted parliamentary advocacy, strategic litigation, and a community-based paralegal programme that have inspired similar projects around the globe. South African activists were also at the forefront of establishing the regional African Sex Worker Alliance.

During these last years of troubled politics in South Africa, civil society in South Africa played an increasing role in highlighting the harm of state capture, and demanding accountability for public and private corruption and its impact on access to healthcare and medicines for the poor and working class. These efforts include demanding greater regulation of the private health industry given the country’s constitutional framework.

Finally, and very importantly to all of us working at the Public Health Program, five South Africans who cut their teeth on the actions and activism outlined above, are now staff members, bringing their experience and knowledge of health, rights and the richness of the South African experience to our global work and efforts daily. These contributions are invaluable.

Fiscal Governance Program

Our Foundation in South Africa has truly been at the forefront of the global social accountability movement over the past 25 years, helping to build the political power some of South Africa’s poorest and most marginalised communities to fight for social and economic justice.

Their support to many social movements including the Social Justice Coalition and Equal Education have helped residents of informal settlements across the Western Cape and in other provinces to build community capacity to analyse budgets, audit the delivery of essential basic state services, identify where government and other providers are not fulfilling its legal obligations and use the streets and the courts to demand justice and accountability. For example, organisations funded and supported by donors including OSF-SA are working on cases related to access to water and sanitation, services historically denied to the majority black population as well as for better policing resources in poor communities most affected by crime in South Africa. OSF-SA has seed funded the first Social Audit Network in South Africa, which will now expand this citizen-based budget and service delivery monitoring work across the country.

We are proud to work with our colleagues at OSF-SA to improve community participation in local government affairs, and to confront the continued challenges that race, class and poverty continue to present for our local foundations and all people who live in South Africa.

Strategy Unit and the Youth Exchange Program

The Strategy development and work of our Foundation in South Africa in recent years has resulted in a clear, focused plan that helped them see, set and steer progress toward the vision of an open society for South Africa. Their efforts in planning and assessment helped them make tough decisions on what to prioritise within their fixed budget and provided a disciplined framework for evaluating partnership requests against their fierce loyalty to the needs of local partners, ensuring that their work and Strategy was grounded in the local context.

OSF-SA’s disciplined attention to their field has spurred a remarkable recognition of the country’s ‘youth dividend’ which has also led this year to the Foundation issuing a commemorative set of Scholarships and Fellowship Awards, with the support of the Youth Exchange and the rest of the Open Society Foundations Network. The winners are remarkable young people who will be issued with an Award for the next academic year, and who will be the next-generation of open society advocates, shaping South Africa and the region, as a tribute to the first set of Scholarships issued by George Soros in 1979 to black students studying at the University of Cape Town, which Scholarships launched the Foundation globally. .

Additionally, the South African office’s efforts over the last few years- to creatively document particular portfolio strategies such as social accountability audit work – has made the work of South Africa’s grantees more visible and shareable, thereby inspiring other actors both inside and outside the Foundations to experiment with similar work.

Open Society Institute for West Africa (OSIWA)

The Board and staff of OSIWA send warmest felicitations to our sister foundation, OSF-SA, for 25 years of grant making! Congratulations!

We are especially proud that during the dark days of apartheid, our region played an integral role in providing refuge to those politically exiled by the apartheid government, and in facilitating the Peace Talks that led to the political settlement in South Africa. Gorée Island, in Dakar, where our head office is based is where African slaves from Africa were transported to North America, but it is also the place where white South Africans met with black liberation movement political leaders who were in exile, to develop a political roadmap for South Africa that would result in the election of a new and democratic government in 1994, and the adoption of a beautiful Constitution a few years later.

OSF-SA’s own ethos is investment in people and ideas in order to drive change that would enable all of our communities to survive and thrive. The very commitment to promoting the values, institutions, and practices of an open, non-racial and non-sexist, democratic South Africa is deeply rooted in the history of the struggle for equality and social justice by the majority of people in South Africa, supported by all of us in the rest of Africa. Of course, South Africa is much more integrated and inter-connected than it was 25 years ago, but the Foundations’ noble purpose remains relevant, perhaps now more than ever. South Africa like most of the countries on our beloved continent has serious socio-economic and political challenges, but it also has some of the leading and robust accountability systems and several rugged institutions, with strong civil society partners and independent media houses, giving us periodic bursts of pride that sustain our vision for equity and equality.

OSF-SA’s humble funding contribution to this nation building project, through the significant efforts of your grantee partners cannot be underestimated. We at OSIWA have learnt a great deal from you. Yes, you have gone through many phases, but your steadfastness, perseverance and dynamism in grant-making and advocacy on critical governance issues is a source of both inspiration and aspiration. Keep your sights fixed firmly on the future and the pursuit of the important vision of a truly open society… let us live with optimism and hope, here is to the next 25 years.

Open Society Justice Initiative

For those of us who believe – as we do at the Open Society Justice Initiative – that the courts can play a role in creating a more just society, South Africa’s experience over the past 25 years has been an inspiration.

The Constitution has been rightly praised as a landmark achievement, pointing the way to a democratic society rooted in a rule of law inclusive of all South Africa’s people. The decision to include economic and social rights, including rights to education, health and housing, made clear the promise that the law would serve not merely to hold government to account – as it must – but also as a foundation for government action to rectify some of apartheid’s most pernicious and enduring legacies.

For supporters from afar, South Africa’s powerful example lay, not just in the constitutional document, but also in the breadth and vibrancy of civil society movements determined to realise the Constitution’s aspirations in practice. Over the past quarter century, the energy and creativity of community groups, working closely with capable legal advocates, and strongly supported by our colleagues at the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, have produced historic decisions that have helped shape global jurisprudence even as they have brought real results for South Africans.

To name a few: in Treatment Action Campaign v Minister of Health in 2002, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to end restrictions on the provision of anti-retroviral drugs in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, resulting in action that saved tens of thousands of lives; in 2000, in Government of South Africa v Grootboom, the court ordered the provision of alternative housing for evicted squatter families; in Madzododzo v Minister of Basic Education, the Court ordered the government to provide proper desks and other school furniture for historically underfunded schools serving children in the
Eastern Cape.

More recently, Open Society Foundation for South Africa grantees have successfully used judicial victories to propel wider campaigns for quality schooling, better policing and spatial justice. Time and again, their efforts have shown that litigation, a vital tool for change, cannot exist in a vacuum but must be married with social mobilisation, media outreach and political struggle.

The impact of these and other individual cases has been magnified by South Africa’s progress more generally in broadening legal access and the provision of legal aid for all, principally through a nationwide network of Community Advice Offices. As part of the Open Society Foundations’ broader ambition to promote access to justice within the framework of the UN’s 2030 Development Agenda, Justice Initiative staff have worked closely with, and learned from, many of the leaders of South Africa’s access to justice movement, taking their experiences to the rest of the world, while the Open Society Foundation for South Africa supports the continued development of a robust national legal aid system.

We at the Open Society Justice Initiative have drawn insight and encouragement from these extraordinary achievements, and from the remarkable individuals who have helped build a more just South Africa. We look forward to further shared learning and collaboration in years to come.

Program on Independent Journalism

Investigative journalism worldwide plays a vital role in exposing crime and corruption, more so when journalists collaborate across borders. In South Africa, investigative journalists have not only produced vital investigations that have dug up vast amounts of ‘fertiliser’ for the country’s democracy, they also continue to nurture a network of investigative journalism in the region, dedicated to holding national governments to account and able to track crime and corruption across borders.

In November 2017, the Wits University Journalism School hosted the bi-annual Global Investigative Journalism Conference with the support of the Open Society Foundations, the first time ever in Africa, bringing together our global partners with those in the region. The event included more than 1 200 media practitioners from 130 countries and offered African journalists the opportunity to engage with their peers from around the world, discuss best practice and explore new collaborations.

In recent years, journalism in South Africa’s rambunctious democracy has served not only to expose state capture and a host of criminal and corrupt practices; it also continues to fight against any efforts to restrict press freedom and censorship. This provides a valuable beacon for journalism elsewhere in the region and across the continent, and a reminder that freedoms won need constantly to be defended. We are proud to work with our Open Society Foundations offices in the region to support these efforts and to build the enterprise of independent journalism and investigative reporting, which is the engine of any democracy.

Education Support Program

The Open Society Foundation Education Support Programme’s (OSF-ESP) collaboration with OSF-SA has focused around joint support for the student campaigning organisation, Equal Education (EE). OSF, through OSF-ESP and OSF-SA, has contributed in the region of $3,5 million to EE over the decade since the organisation’s founding in 2009. There have been many reasons reason for our sustained and sizeable engagement over this period; three are consistently central. First, EE has enormous legitimacy as a democratic membership-based organisation run by township youth and it has produced a generation of impressive young women activists and youth leaders. Second, the organisation has a clarity of purpose and strategic approach that is widely recognised as effective in progressively realising equal education for black youth in South Africa’s township schools. Third, EE’s example of disciplined and principled mass-struggle recalls and renews South Africa’s proud tradition of courageous non-racial struggle for national liberation and equal rights. These are relatively rare qualities globally among organisations working for social change; they are a credit to OSF-SA’s work in South Africa. EE also offers an example of the importance of democratic participation and student-led struggle for change that inspires education reform and youth action for open society globally.