It is hard to believe that little more than a year has passed since I first joined OSF-SA. I smile when I think of all the plans that I had for my first few months at the helm of the foundation, including easing into my role, buffered by a year-long induction period. That plan went the way of most plans scuppered by 2020.

Amidst all the challenges, heartaches and fears we’ve all experienced this year, I was buoyed by the energy of my team in South Africa, the region, the OSF network and philanthropic partners as well as by the wonderful work we and our grantees managed to do under sometimes trying circumstances.

January saw the entire OSF-SA team set off for a two-day retreat to discuss organisational culture and to plan for the year ahead. I enjoyed spending time with the team and getting to know the people who would come to mean so much to me within a few short months.

In February we were caught up in a whirlwind of activity as we hosted OSF President Patrick Gaspard and members of his team for several high-level talks in South Africa. This visit culminated in a rooftop get-together in Cape Town, during which Patrick and I chatted about the need to fight for democracy in a conversation facilitated by OSF-SA Board member Songezo Zibi.

As the new coronavirus reached South Africa in March, we knew that collaboration and solidarity would become more important than ever, as these are the relationships that define us. Early in the month, we moved to ensure that our staff had the tools and support they needed to work from home. We engaged with our grantees to learn how they were responding to COVID-19 and to assure them that we aimed to be as flexible as possible in our grant making during this time.

April saw us adjust to the realities of life under lockdown as we endeavoured to keep ourselves safe. We knew that women and children are especially vulnerable to violence and abuse during pandemic times, so we convened members of the gender-based violence (GBV) sector to learn more as part of our attempts to create human solutions to what was fast becoming a crisis in South Africa.

By May, our COVID-19 response strategy was in play, which saw us take on new grantees in order to provide an emergency rapid response to needs on the ground. This included providing funds for humanitarian aid such as food, personal protective equipment and biomedical supplies. Our staff were kept busy responding to daily requests for assistance to respond to COVID-19 by grantees and non-grantees. Most of our existing grantees pivoted their work to respond to the challenges of COVID-19.

In June, we began a series of conversations to begin our new strategy development process. What had been planned as a weeklong retreat became drawn out as a result of the online nature of the discussions, but resulted in spirited debates and a wealth of ideas that informed our new strategy.

During the second week of July, we began a series of five online conversations with grantees under the theme of how philanthropy can strengthen civil society. We spoke with more than 150 representatives from various organisations. During these conversations, I met some of our grantees for the first time and was awed by their commitment to our country and her people. In July, the plight of journalists was at the forefront of our minds with the arrest of Hopewell Chin’ono in Harare and the announcement by the South African National Editors’ Forum that more than 700 journalists had lost their jobs in South Africa as a direct result of COVID-19. This motivated us to donate R1 million to the SANEF Media Relief Fund.

In August, OSF granted all staff mandatory COVID-19 leave for five days. In South Africa, we benefited from the public holiday on 10 August, which extended our leave. From then on, it was full steam ahead to submit our new strategy to our global head office in New York.

We submitted our new strategy by the first week of September. This document was informed by numerous conversations with our grantees, regional and network partners and intensive input from our Board. We also began sharing a few of the thoughts and reasoning behind our new strategy, such as the need to place women and children at the centre of all we do.

Once our strategy was approved, drawing up our implementation plan, including our new organisational strategy occupied a large part of the executive team’s time during October, while the October grant cycle and the need to get money out the door absorbed the entire team’s focus.

In November, as the US Elections dominated international media, we shared our strategy to counter voter apathy, which includes civic education and the need to get young South Africans voting – a right earlier generations fought so hard to achieve. We look forward to sharing our 2021-2024 strategy with you in the new year.

Last week, OSF President Patrick Gaspard announced that he will be leaving OSF at the end of December. We look forward to working with incoming OSF President Mark Malloch-Brown, who is not only a former member of the OSF Global Board of many years standing, but is also a former UN deputy secretary-general and whom we know has a keen interest in South Africa and our country’s democracy.

But first, we need to rest. My team has earned it. We will be downing tools from 15 December 2020 until 4 January 2021. As I look back at the year that was, I am particularly grateful for my colleagues. We said goodbye to two colleagues, Grants Manager Charlene Nel and JER Senior Programme Officer Adam Andani who left the foundation for new endeavours. Still, we were able to attract and induct new staff while working remotely. New staff adjusted well, assisted by their longer-term colleagues. Responding to COVID-19 has forced us to work in new ways that we will be taking into the new year. I am pleased to say that we are ending the year with a very capable, competent and committed team.

Written by Bulelwa Ngewana, Executive Director: OSF-SA