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Nelson Mandela 100, Obama and philanthropy


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

Three key sectors have an impact on our future: government, the corporate sector and civil society. Where government fails, civil society often steps in. Philanthropy – part of civil society – will be a vital part of South African life for years to come.

On 17 July my cousin and I stood in the long queue, shuffling our way into the Wanderers Stadium where the Obama lecture took place to celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.

The content of the various speeches was uplifting as this was, indeed, a day to celebrate. A day for us to review what our South African values are and the indelible impact Mandela made on those values. More importantly for me was the nature of the crowd – positive, energetic, young and eager to build the country, to play a role in ensuring that the basic values espoused by Madiba should reach fruition.

I recall the excitement of attending his inauguration – we were idealists, expecting an honest, committed government that would deliver on democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism, and a “better life for all”. As former United States President Barack Obama said in his speech “…. as a law student, I witnessed Madiba emerge from prison, just a few months, you’ll recall, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I felt the same wave of hope that washed through hearts all around the world.”

Obama asked:

Do you remember that feeling? It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit – that all that was crumbling before our eyes.”

Fast forward to 2018 where more South Africans are on the streets than ever before as a result of lack of delivery of basic services, the fall in our economic and international status amid the growth of networks of corruption that have ensured millions of people remain outside the levers of money and power. People have a sense of a rudderless country without clear policy, direction and the rule of law. Obama pointed this out when he said:

In many middle-income and developing countries, new wealth has just tracked the old bad deal that people got because it reinforced or even compounded existing patterns of inequality, the only difference is it created even greater opportunities for corruption on an epic scale.”

He pointed out that these trends had resulted in “an explosion in economic inequality.”

Obama then went on to describe the “new international elite” which he pointed out came from various corners of the world, and many of whom considered themselves “liberal in their politics, modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook.” He said that many were “sincere and effective in their philanthropy”, yet this elite had become “increasingly detached from any single locale or nation-state, and they live lives more and more insulated from the struggles of ordinary people in their countries of origin.”

He said that if we cared about social justice today, then we had a “responsibility to do something about it.” He pointed out that it wasn’t enough to protest, but “we’re going to have to build, we’re going to have to innovate, we’re going to have to figure out how do we close this widening chasm of wealth and opportunity both within countries and between them.”

Three key sectors in society have an impact on our future. Government, which in South Africa has a five year mandate to deliver on policy which the governing party has espoused in political campaigns, and which certainly has the bulk of the financial resources, legislative power and coercive power to deliver on that policy; the corporate sector that creates wealth and jobs; and civil society where citizens organise themselves to engage with government and the corporate sector and to undertake their own projects and programmes in their communities.

Where government in particular fails, such as in care for aged, for the provision of school feeding schemes or even housing, civil society often steps in. To some degree civil society organisations become service providers to government, but in South Africa this has not always been a successful partnership. The disaster when the Gauteng Health Department moved patients from Life Esidimeni to non-profit organisations, some of which were not even registered, resulting in the deaths of many patients, is an example of an appalling partnership.

The population is also up in arms about corruption. This was the one word that continually received a response from the crowd at the Obama lecture – people are fed up with state capture, double speak, fake news and everything else that has aided and abetted a corrupt elite. This could be the Achilles heel of the ruling party as public trust, the cornerstone of all relationships, has slipped away.

Philanthropy is part of the continuum of civil society. Individuals provide time and resources to organisations that play a role in their communities, from child welfare to care of the aged and everything in between. Structured philanthropy as found in established trusts and foundations has also played an important role over the last few years in South Africa’s civil society initiatives. This includes both local and international philanthropy and it has helped to build the capacity of organisations to research, to advocate, to convene and mobilise as well as litigate in a number of areas, particularly human rights and in support of our constitution. Philanthropy is based on social values which are different from those that drive business and outcomes focus on positive change in people’s life experiences.

There are more than 150 000 non profit organisations in South Africa. Each year many of those close their doors, whilst simultaneously new organisations are created. This not only reflects the resources available, but it also shows that South Africa is a fast-changing society and that organisations will come and go according to need and to the shifting context. However, it is important for individuals to play their roles in society if we want the kind of society that cares for all.

As Obama suggested,

“There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough. You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, ‘Well, let me help out…’.”

He said:

“… it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more, instead of saying, ‘Wow, I’ve got so much. Who can I help? How can I give more and more and more?’ That’s ambition. That’s impact. That’s influence. What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself.”

As I have said before, South Africa is a nation of givers and this is borne out by the vibrancy of our civil society. However, if we are going to shift gears, restore our democracy and maintain the pressure for social justice, philanthropy has a critical role to play for years to come. DM


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