Franschoek Literary Festival: A critique of charity
- Shelagh Gastrow
- 26 May 2015 (South Africa)
Amongst other things, Mgqolozana admonished the white audience for thinking that doing charity work amongst the poor somehow pardoned them, freeing them from the burden of privilege. To quote him, “One of the things I advise – when young white people come to me and say ‘what can I do’ – the first thing you can do is stop the charity work you are doing in Khayelitsha, it’s not helping anyone. Just stop it. Stop the soup kitchens and donating blankets. It’s just making people more angry, it doesn’t change anything.” He explained that the issue was not poverty, but the construction of whiteness and white entitlement.
These are complex issues. Charity is not a white concept, but goes back thousands of years, steeped in religious doctrine such as Zakat in Islam, Dana in Hinduism and Tzadakah in Judaism. In Africa the notion of Ubuntu reflects the same values. However, as charity is often practised now, it implies a sense of neediness by one party and a sense of obligation by the other. Charity is also ad hoc and relies on the whims of the giver thereby creating an uneven playing field. It is usually anonymous for both parties and they rarely get to know each other. Hence it tends to patch problems rather than solve systemic issues. It can leave the giver feeling somewhat fulfilled (including a sense of moral self-importance) in that they have done their duty and it may provide immediate succour for the recipient, but does little to change fundamental circumstances.
However, we have to recognise that people who give away their personal money without any expectation of a return are also in the mix, and very often these are people who have few resources of their own. Sometimes this is driven by religious principles, sometimes by guilt, sometimes by passion and care. Charity has its place and the calls for support in times of crisis are important as we have seen in Nepal with the earthquakes, or with Thailand and the tsunami. Gift of the Givers is an incredible example of the power of charitable giving. Charity is also not only about money, but about care, visiting the sick or prisoners for example.
So what underlies Mgqolozana’s cry? Is it the act of charity itself, or is it how charitable giving by white people makes black people feel in South Africa? The soup kitchens and the blankets that he mentions are only the tip of the iceberg. There are the township tours with voyeurs wringing their hands and exclaiming “ghastly human tragedy”; there are the comments about lazy layabouts in the townships; there are people who decide what is good for the poor without any consultation. There are the summer holidays in Cape Town where Europeans come to do their social good and spend time with orphans; there are the charity safaris where visitors drop their charity into the pond and then leave without dealing with the consequences, but feeling good about their contributions. On the other hand black people in South Africa are also involved in the very same charity – those who have resources give to those who need assistance. According to research, charity in the black community exceeds that in the white community in terms of percentage of income given away. Does Mgqolozxana feel as offended when black people participate in the same charitable paradigm?
The problem in our context in South Africa is that our government has not changed our society, it has not delivered many services so desperately needed, it has not improved our educational throughput, reduced poverty in meaningful ways and people have little hope. As a result, a significant number of services are funded through private philanthropy, from early childhood development; education programmes, both basic and higher; infrastructure such as clinics, university buildings, libraries and art galleries; environmental programmes; human rights and social justice organisations that litigate on behalf of interest groups or develop and advocate for new policies; organisations that monitor government activity (or lack of it); independent media and a myriad of other activities that involve active citizenship. Perhaps that is where the difference between strategic philanthropy and regular charity lies – the first explores systemic change and the latter only deals with immediate needs. Philanthropy should be meaningful both to the philanthropist and the recipients, there should be engagement, connection and understanding of where everyone stands. This is a continuum of activism underpinned by resources that enable activism and efforts toward systemic transformation to take place.
Oscar Wilde in ‘The Soul of Man’ called charity “a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution … usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over private lives.” He saw this as a remedy that prolonged the “disease” of poverty, rather than curing it. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, has produced a wonderful cartoon entitled ‘First as Tragedy, then as Farce’ which can be found on YouTube. It is perhaps this sense of the moral high ground that those dispensing charity might exhibit that affects Mgqolozana, and we need to take care how we privately invest in our society to ensure that this does not affect the good work that is being done.
Mgqolozana himself was a Mandela Rhodes scholar, an incredibly prestigious scholarship for some of South Africa’s best minds. However, underlying this scholarship is the donation of money that has created opportunities to attend one of the world’s top universities. How do we connect that with the critique of charity that he, himself, has raised? DM
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