Opinionista Phillip Dexter 12 April 2013

Western Cape volunteering: Not dead, not even sickly

Marius Fransman wants to ignite a new fire in the ANC's Western Cape heart by re-invigorating volunteerism, and Ryland Fisher has argued in Daily Maverick that any attempt is doomed to fail owing to apathy and corruption. He’s wrong, though – the spirit of Chris Hani is alive and flourishing.

Earlier this week, Ryland Fisher argued that the ANC’s Western Cape volunteer campaign was doomed to fail. Among other things, he claimed that volunteerism had lost its gloss over the decades, and that the ANC would “need bigger causes than non-sexism and non-racism to get South Africans off their backsides”.

However, while Fisher makes some good points about the waning culture of volunteerism in our society, I think he has underestimated the character of ordinary South African people. It is true that business people and others have exploited this spirit of generosity and solidarity. They have also sought to kill it by limiting funding to this sector. But volunteering remains a strong culture in our society. The facts about the 5,000 Chris Hani volunteers campaign show this already. Other evidence is there to see in various sectors.

South Africa has a large voluntary and philanthropic sector. Most of this is driven by ordinary people: workers, the unemployed, members of religious organisations and the like. There are over 3,500 such organisations listed on one website alone. We all know of organisations providing care, solidarity and many other public goods and services in neighbourhoods and homes across the country. In the Western Cape, the ANC government mobilised about 20,000 volunteers through Bambanani and other similar initiatives when it was in power. Many of these volunteers were trained and went on to find decent work. Of course, the DA has killed this program off. It has also closed down other voluntary structures such as CPFs since it came to power in the Western Cape.

Fisher is correct that since the end of Apartheid, many of the voluntary organisations that used to exist have shut up shop. This is for a number of reasons, and not mainly because of cynicism and pessimism or a culture of entitlement. People do have more of an expectation to do things for money or for profit than before in most communities. This is to be expected in a capitalist society. But in addition, the ANC government has used its power to change the state so that it provides services to all, instead of the white minority alone. This has meant a need to expand employment in the public sector to take over services that were being provided by volunteers but that government should have been providing and now does. Significantly, people who were not paid under Apartheid have gone into government and the private sector. There is nothing wrong with that. People should be paid for what work they do, but that does not mean there is no room for volunteering. Many of the voluntary organisations of the struggle received funding from international solidarity organisations, but this has dried up since 1994.  Again, there is nothing wrong with that, as these resources have been diverted to people even more in need of solidarity than our own.

There is a place for a volunteer corps that mobilise those who do not want to or do not need to work, those who are unemployed and those who simply want to lend a hand. That’s what this campaign is about. It seeks to build on the very spirit Fisher is nostalgic about. Nostalgia is not a bad thing, but it is a sentiment that solves nothing. Complaining about the current reality, no matter how valid the complaint, is not a solution to the status quo. Cynicism is an indulgence of those who do not need hope. Pessimism, whether Afro pessimism, RSA pessimism or Western Cape pessimism, is a trap that the racists, bigots, the wealthy and the privileged set for us. We must not fall into this trap. The vast majority of our people need all the hope, support and encouragement they can get.

Marius Fransman, the Chair of the ANC in the Western Cape, made the call for 5,000 volunteers. I have it on good authority that that target has been surpassed by 1,000-plus. Every day, hundreds of volunteers have and are coming forward. This shows that the spirit of Chris Hani is alive and flourishing. It shows that these people are saying no to cynicism and pessimism. The next step of the campaign is to put these soldiers of solidarity, the people who want to be like Chris Hani, to work – in homes, at schools, on the streets – to assist those in need. The plans to do so are already far advanced.

Fisher is a seasoned veteran of the struggle for liberation in our country. He has vast skills and experience. My challenge to him is that he should be putting that experience and skills to use in assisting to mobilise, train and guide the volunteers. Sitting and watching and expecting people to fail serves no constructive purpose. Mr Fisher, volunteer! DM

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