NEW BOOK
Harnessing the thunder - Civil society's care and creativity in South Africa's Covid Storm

Covid-19 amplified the seismic rumblings of South Africa’s divided society. They became part of the thunder of the storm. Out of the limelight and away from corruption scandals, a vast network of civil society organisations mobilised as the pandemic approached. During lockdown, they stepped up to provide food, shelter and personal protective equipment to millions of people whose incomes just stopped. But they did more than that.

They harnessed the thunder, directing attention to people who are usually not seen or heard – compelling the nation to take a long, hard look at itself. Why, in normal times, are so many children hungry, women abused, people drunk, and youth locked out of the digital revolution? Then they showed how different things can be. They found answers to some of the country’s tough questions. Their call to government and the private sector is to embrace civil society and the solutions it can offer.

David Harrison

NEW BOOK
Harnessing the thunder - Civil society's care and creativity in South Africa's Covid Storm

Covid-19 amplified the seismic rumblings of South Africa’s divided society. They became part of the thunder of the storm. Out of the limelight and away from corruption scandals, a vast network of civil society organisations mobilised as the pandemic approached. During lockdown, they stepped up to provide food, shelter and personal protective equipment to millions of people whose incomes just stopped. But they did more than that.

They harnessed the thunder, directing attention to people who are usually not seen or heard – compelling the nation to take a long, hard look at itself. Why, in normal times, are so many children hungry, women abused, people drunk, and youth locked out of the digital revolution? Then they showed how different things can be. They found answers to some of the country’s tough questions. Their call to government and the private sector is to embrace civil society and the solutions it can offer.

David Harrison

DEDICATION

This book is dedicated to the people who work in civil society organisations, who mobilised to protect and support families in distress during the Covid-19 crisis. But they did more than that – they used the crisis to promote change. The DG Murray Trust team and its investment partners simply helped unlock their creative power – harnessing the thunder while providing shelter from the storm.

Harnessing the thunder - Civil society's care and creativity in South Africa's Covid Storm

 
We have 2 000 copies of Harnessing the Thunder that we would like to give to individuals working at civil society organisations to acknowledge the critical work done during this difficult year. If you work in civil society and would like a copy, or if you know of someone whom you think should get a copy, please can you provide a postal address here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

DR DAVID HARRISON is the CEO of the DG Murray Trust (DGMT), a public innovation fund based in Cape Town. A medical doctor and specialist in public policy, he founded the Health Systems Trust in 1991 and later headed the loveLife HIV-prevention campaign for almost a decade from its inception in 2000. He has led DGMT since 2010.

He is convinced that South Africa can fly; that we would soar if we just seized the opportunities for lift-off. They start with the obvious – feeding our children, developing language skills, making early learning possible for all. If we had already done these things, the impact of Covid-19 would have been far less severe. He believes now is the time we got things right.

David Harrison
Lockdown lines
Alcohol Lockdown lines
Fresh produce

“The book is a blast of reality resembling fiction all too closely, with corporate greed and government corruption alongside corporate responsibility and government responsiveness. And within this multi-front battle, I do love a good hero/heroine story—and there are plenty of these to choose from in this nonfiction. I love that you managed to capture the types of detail and nuance that I am personally drawn to when reading narrative reports from our program partners – without being there with you, the depth and details you provide is the only way we can truly gain an understanding and appreciation for how difficult this work is, and how extraordinary civil society is. This is so helpful in understanding the many journeys and feats of responding to the need in South Africa. Thank you.”

Lorrie Fair Allen, Chief Program Director, Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project

Excerpts


#1
“ By the beginning of June, we were increasingly uneasy about the little progress being made in securing PPE. The country’s infection rate was starting to escalate, and we had hoped to be able to distribute a first consignment to hot spots by the middle of the month. There now seemed to be little prospect of that. With agreement from the Solidarity Fund, we decided to exercise our contractual right to procure all PPE independently, though still hoping that our first order through B4SA would materialise. Fortunately, the ELMA Foundation had also agreed from the start that DGMT could source PPE on its own, which created the space for an ingenious local solution.

The Stellenbosch Nanofiber Company (SNC) is a materials science company that develops and manufactures nanofiber materials using its patented SNC BEST® Ball Electrospinning Technology. Nanofibers are extremely fine fibres used in a wide range of applications, including cosmetics and medicines. They are woven together to create a diaphanous film that can be applied to the skin or, as we were about to discover, as a medical-grade filter in reusable face masks. Once the stringent lockdown was lifted, I visited the factory to see the technology in action. Coated head to foot in protective gear – to prevent me from introducing any germs into the process – I was allowed into the laboratory. Here, a viscous polymer was being siphoned from bottles on the ground into shallow baths. Plastic spheres the size of table tennis balls slowly rotated in the treacle. But the syrup glazing the spheres was not smooth – it was spiky, and the spikes flew upwards like a child’s sparkler until they spun onto a sheet of polyester fabric to form the delicate nanofilter layer. The unseen magic was an electromagnetic field between the spheres and the fabric, which attracted the liquid polymer like fine hair to the static of a woollen cardigan.

The polymer coated fabric was then cut and tailored to insert into the middle pouch of a specially manufactured cloth mask. These mask filters can be sterilised with boiling hot water and reused up to nine times, while the durable cloth masks are washable by hand or machine. The economic and environmental benefits are huge. For instance, assuming the cloth mask lasts three months, the daily cost works out at just one-third of the expense of daily disposable masks; and the waste needing to be dumped at the local landfill or incinerator reduced by 90%. The orders SNC received from DGMT alone saved the importation and disposal of over 10 million single-use masks.”


#2
“In Gauteng, aerial photographs had captured long lines of people, kilometres long, waiting patiently for food parcels – pictures reminiscent of Election Day in 1994, only this time people wanted food more than the vote. It was an irony lost on some politicians. A few days after the 26th anniversary of Freedom Day, a senior cabinet minister posted a message panning an NGO feeding 15 000 people in Olievenhoutbosch: “Some of the NGOs which get their money from official places are clearly out of order,” she ranted. “There are many illegal foreign nationals in the crowd and others are there because free food is being given at the expense of people who deserve.” These and other similar comments oozed xenophobic heartlessness, and the subsequent disclosures of widespread PPE corruption and fraud just heightened the cynicism towards political leaders who were meant to be holding our society together.

Compare these attitudes to those of people working and volunteering in civil society networks. In the greater Cape Town, local Community Action Networks (CANs) set up over 150 temporary soup kitchens, providing warm meals to thousands of people. One of them was run by retired chef Peter Wagenaar who, despite objections and threats from some of the Atlantic-side elite, provided a delicious breakfast and lunch to up to 200 homeless people in Green Point every day. He woke up one morning in early June to find that his Mini Cooper had been torched in the night. On the lunch menu was roast chicken, savoury rice and vegetables, with a custard dessert, and over 180 homeless people still got their food that day.” 

This story highlights the critical role of civil society organisations in protecting the whole of society and innovating in times of uncertainty. As we try to rebuild and transform our society, organised civil society must be recognised as equals with government, trade unions and the private sector. Our nation is one body, and civil society is its neuro-electric system that can sense and signal changes in every cell. Without it, government becomes less and less responsive to need, and communities more and more alienated. The whole body suffers, as does the physical environment around it – because people no longer care.

Just look at the litter smothering our townships and villages. Its meaning is there for all to see, but we choose not to see it. In the same way, the seismic tremors of our divided society are always there, but we choose not to feel them. Somehow Covid-19 caused us to see deeper into the fissures and to hear louder the rumblings from the ground. They became part of the thunder of the storm. 

If you do not work in civil society, Harnessing the Thunder is still a must read must read to better understand the inner workings of the sector and vital role they play in times of crisis as well as everyday need. It will be available for sale in all major bookstores around the country or visit Porcupine Press to order a copy after the 11th of December 2020.

Porcupine Press

For any enquiries about harnessing the thunder, please email, communications@dgmt.co.za

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