It’s hard to believe that we are only in the third week of 2021. Most people I have spoken to expressed that this year feels like last year physically and psychologically. In many respects it feels worse due to the continuous numbing losses that we are all experiencing: of loved ones, colleagues and acquaintances who have succumbed to COVID-19 and the constant worry about what tragedy might be lying ahead. Everywhere it seems that hope and faith are being tested. Few people are untouched.

Last year has taught me that I will never again complain when life is slow. With the pandemic and the adjustments we’ve needed to make to our lives, life has by necessity moved at breakneck pace. This speed can be wonderful, life-altering even, such as with the innovations in therapeutics and preventatives to treat this new virus. We’ve seen vaccines developed in a matter of months, but we’ve seen catastrophic loss in a matter of months too – of lives and of livelihoods. The new coronavirus has wreaked destruction on a massive scale in South Africa, as in the rest of the world. As one of a group of philanthropic institutions in South Africa, our Foundation has had to keep up with the immense need in our country, ever mindful of the challenges and resource limitations.

Due to the pace we operated at last year, I am grateful that my team and I have had a bit of a break over the December-January period. This summer break was like no other with many jobs being shed in the tourism sector due to lockdown laws, closed borders and diminished demand. Nor is the tourism sector the only one affected. The logjam at our land borders resulted in gut-wrenching images of thousands of people stuck at border posts, desperate to get back to their much-needed jobs. I am also deeply aware of the food insecurity that many South Africans face due to the impact of the much-needed lockdown restrictions on the economy.

At the dawn of the new year, the Open Society Foundations went through a changing of the guard with the departure of Patrick Gaspard and new president Mark Malloch Brown’s assumption of his role. This is likely to bring some changes ahead. Most of these changes are much anticipated and were signposted by the past president. I will endeavour to keep you informed about them timeously.

Just last week, we saw another changing of the guard with the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president of the USA respectively. It’s not news that this inauguration came after considerable drama and manoeuvring. I watched, with great disbelief, the machinations of the president of one of the world’s superpowers as he refused to accept the results of a free and fair election. Witnessing the jarring acts of insurrection at the United States Capitol earlier this month, underscored the fragility of democracy for me. I was reminded how easy it is to take democracy for granted, and how often it is only when the pillars of democracy are threatened that we truly value it. Democracy is indeed a very fragile thing. South Africa underwent various threats to its democracy in the past, and we are by no means out of the woods yet. Our saving grace has been a robust judiciary, independent media and civil society, and actively engaged citizens who stood firm against the many threats. These threats create added impetus to build a resilient democracy and strengthen our institutions.

The USA is facing a number of critical challenges, which include COVID-19, climate change, the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and systemic racism. Already, the changes brought in by the new Biden-Harris administration will impact the work we do, such as the repealing of the Global Gag Rule, which bans non-profits that receive US global health funds from providing or advocating for abortions and the reform of abortion laws – even if done with the organisation’s own funds. Please refer to our 2019 Annual Report for more information on the Global Gag Rule and the implications for non-profits in South Africa.

Other changes that should positively impact our work include the US joining the COVAX alliance, re-joining the World Health Organization and returning to the Paris Climate Agreement. We will monitor these political changes carefully over the next few months, with particular interest in how the USA can advocate for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, which is arguably the most important issue of our time.

Now in the grip of a more transmissible variant of the virus, with an embattled economy, health, education and political challenges, South Africa requires strong and independent institutions, a robust civil society and an independent media more than ever. Our grantees have worked so hard during the past year, whether providing aid to the most desperate communities, advocating for the socioeconomic rights of ever-marginalised people during a pandemic, or holding government and the private sector to account, along with many hours of uncelebrated labour. I must acknowledge the enduring spirit of all of those working in this sector. I also send my sincere condolences to all who have lost family, friends and colleagues during this time.

Last year taught me that there is no such thing as certainty, but despite my uncertainty, it is my sincere wish that 2021 is a kinder one for us all. I wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

Written by Bulelwa Ngewana, Executive Director: OSF-SA