Philanthropy, the Ubuntu Way

Philanthropy, a word of Greek origin, is defined as a love for humanity. While philanthropy is considered a concept of western and European origin, with the bulk of philanthropic funds being donated by North America, a similar concept has for many years been common practice for Africans.

Commonly known as ubuntu in South Africa, this philosophy is African institutional knowledge that reminds us of our interconnected wellbeing. An example of collective giving are the Zulu practices of ukusisa (loaning cattle) and ilimo (community support). While there was once a time when people thrived off the land, loaning one another livestock and sharing produce during hardship, the harsh effects of drought and unemployment have limited these practices, simultaneously reducing the independence of rural communities. Despite the self-sustaining methods of small-scale community philanthropy, these forms of giving are considered informal. More formalised western models of philanthropy have a focus on scale, which can result in a one-size-fits-all approach to community upliftment. While we shouldn’t discount the impact western models of giving have had on our society, by acknowledging them as the only method we may conclude that only wealthy individuals or wealthy nations are accountable for our social well-being.

Community practices of ubuntu have evolved with the times. In South Africa, stokvels have mobilised communities toward building schools and houses as a long-term strategy for transformation. Yet, in the presence of a tough economic climate the responsibility to build a home, among many other things, falls on the employed individual in the family. For the younger generation, this familial giving has been termed “black tax” – not because they don’t see value in giving, but because it serves as a reactionary response to social and economic inequalities.

In academia, giving is often differentiated by short-term and long-term categories. Short-term strategies are more likely to alleviate immediate pressures – such as feeding schemes – but are unsustainable in the long-term because of their reliance on consistent funding. Long-term strategies are more likely to be sustainable because the need for funding is reduced over time – like vegetable gardens or livestock provisions – and the result is not a reward but rather an opportunity.

When the Motsepe Foundation partnered with Global Citizen, our aim was to encourage this collaborative action. More than 5 million activities were undertaken by the youth in 2018, in response to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN. But unless these actions have spurred a lasting impact, and the active search for creative solutions for the problems our society faces, we cannot yet rest. The SDGs aptly acknowledge the interconnectedness between poverty, health, education, job creation and environmental sustainability. Similarly, it acknowledges the need for partnerships to achieve these goals. In South Africa, corporate social investments (CSI) are encouraging partnerships between the private sector and NPOs.

An analysis of CSI in South Africa, by Trialogue, has found that their giving has focused significantly on education, which accounted for 44percent of the total R9.7billion in 2018. Education is an example of a long-term intervention, because it encourages critical thinking and opens pathways for sustainable access to resources and decision-making power. The funding of education, and the building of infrastructure and facilities, enables corporates to have a direct say in the development of skills needed for the future.

The tendency of the private sector to invest significantly in organisations operating in urban and peri-urban areas is likely because these areas are more densely populated. The result is that large and well known NGOs get supported, while those operating in rural communities with less resources are unable to receive the support they need to deliver on their mandate. According to the report, only 39percent of funds were allocated to rural areas in 2018. Of the total CSI spending for 2018, 44percent of funds allocated toward food security and agriculture programmes were financing unsustainable feeding schemes. These feeding schemes shouldn’t be abolished completely, because addressing immediate hunger and malnutrition does have long-term positive effects on child learning outcomes and the well-being of pregnant women. But this short-term alleviation is most effective when combined with long-term collaborative empowerment that gives the poor the dignity to care for themselves.

To eliminate suffering, and progress the capabilities of humanity, we need to promote solidarity and true agency for the poor to determine their own destiny. To truly bring change is a task too large for NGOs, the private sector and the government alone. Partnerships between people, who are driven toward the shared aspirational mission of social justice, instils a sense of belonging and creates a culture of giving. Helping others to become self-reliant and independent is not a reserve of the haves, but an act of good neighbourliness and active citizenship. When we help others we empower ourselves, and live by the core values of African philanthropy.

Ubuntu is the foundation that we must build upon, where the advancement of the collective is connected to our progress as individuals. When we give others room to exercise their agency, and are held accountable for collective progress, we are compelled to actively participate and hold charitable organisations responsible for the impact of their projects. In this way our knowledge foundation is built into a sustainable home, where we are all shared owners.

Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe is the co-founder and chief executive of the Motsepe Foundation.

This article was originally published in the IOL Business Report

Photo credit: Social TV

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