By William Gumede
Given the persistently high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality – combined with public service delivery failure – the act of giving by business, the wealthy and skilled individuals can make important contributions towards solving our pressing problems.
Philanthropy, whether in the form of giving money, expertise or time, is itself a form of active citizenship. When focused on social justice causes, it can strengthen democracy, reduce inequalities and promote social cohesion.
The focus of philanthropy has generally been on corporate giving, but giving by ordinary citizens – what we can call citizen philanthropy – is equally important. Citizen philanthropy is where citizens help those more vulnerable by sharing their time, expertise and money.
Any form of individual giving is to be encouraged and contributes towards a better society. And giving to social justice causes specifically can have a far greater impact, by strengthening our institutions and influencing broader audiences. Sadly, giving by ordinary citizens to social justice, human rights and democracy-strengthening causes has declined over the past few years, as has giving by corporates to these causes.
Understandably, many citizens feel as though they do not matter, that their contributions have little impact and that they cannot contribute substantially to change. This, of course, is not true. Some have argued that now that South Africa is a democracy, it is the responsibility of the state to help the poor, vulnerable and jobless.
Reactions from specific demographic are also worth nothing. Many in the black middle class have to pay ‘black tax’ – upkeep of poorer family members. Not surprisingly, many then baulk at the idea of giving to those unrelated to them as well.
Although not substantiated by any formal research, there are views that, black political capitalists, many of whom ironically made their money through political connections, BEE and state tenders, are rarely giving and that some in the white middle class believe that the predominantly black government and black economic empowerment (BEE) capitalists should help more.
Furthermore, many former activists who were involved in citizen philanthropy during the struggle against apartheid have become increasingly disillusioned by the corruption of, incompetence of and their marginalisation by the post-apartheid government, and disengaged from sharing their skills in helping others.
Finally, young professionals of all colours are also less involved in citizen philanthropy in terms of donating to and volunteering in communities, charities and civil society organisations, as well as helping the vulnerable outside their own immediate family.
Yet, citizen philanthropy has the potential to transform the lives of poorer individuals for the better, which in turn promotes the well-being and prosperity of their families, communities and ultimately the wider society.
Social justice philanthropy can strengthen individuals, communities and civil society and public organisations – a strong civil society strengthens democracy, public service delivery and accountability of public and elected representatives.
Social justice philanthropy can also lead to greater social solidarity between the well-off and the poor; trigger positive social change; generally, fortify the resilience of citizens in the face of state collapse, family and community breakdown and hopelessness; and help reduce economic, social and political inequalities across race, class and gender.
South Africa needs a new generation of citizen philanthropists of all colours, classes and age groups to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, communities and society – and ultimately to strengthen democracy itself.
Solidarity across race, class and ideology is often absent in South Africa. The lack of social solidarity between the rich and poor undermines social cohesion, fuels violent resentment against those better off and undermines peace.
Skilled South Africans could help in poorer communities. Retired professionals could teach in black schools and communities, from mathematics to rugby skills, and mentor a child in Soweto, Alexandria and Khayelitsha. And medical doctors and lawyers could volunteer their services.
Privileged individuals could pay for the education of the children of their domestic workers or give these workers economically relevant skills, such as driving and first aid, as well as skills through vocational training. They could support a child’s education in the township or adopt a township family through regularly providing financial and other support.
Privileged schools can adopt or twin with poor township schools, with teachers from the well-resourced school teaching and richer parents volunteering at the poorer schools.
Former pupils of embattled township schools and residents of neglected townships who are now financially well off and more skilled could contribute to their old schools and townships, whether through mentoring, sponsoring poor children and families or giving access to their social and business networks.
Corporates could also encourage citizen philanthropy by introducing social justice staff volunteering and encouraging their staff to contribute their skills to community development, civil society capacity building and support for democratic institutions.
Government should promote tax incentives for those who give and consider more generous tax support for citizen philanthropy. This will help foster a new mass culture of giving in South Africa.
William Gumede is the Executive Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org) and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg).
– This opinion piece was done for Nedbank Private Wealth, November 2019