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Local Culture of Giving in Southern Africa

MFG Archive, Profiles

Shelagh Gastrow examines the culture of giving across Southern Africa.


Africa offers a swathe of giving practices based on indigenous giving cultures through to sophisticated strategic philanthropy. We live in fast changing societies and they are often geared to change. It is imperative in South Africa, for example, to move beyond race and class to create an equitable society. This is the goal of government, of business, civil society and philanthropy. We therefore find a variety of “cultures of giving”.


In the African region we do not necessarily find commonalities as each country has different cultures and histories. However, most have a common history of colonialism, poor governance and, for many, on-going aid requirements. Indigenous forms of community sustenance and sharing have existed for millennia as communities have had to cope with regular crises. The concept of “Ubuntu” is considered a key value in traditional African culture. It means “I am who I am because of who you are”. This implies an interconnectedness between all people and embraces community.


While many believe that the ideal of Ubuntu has lost its meaning in the violence and alienation of our informal settlements as well as the lack of care or conscience amongst many of our governments, Ubuntu continues to function. This can be seen in South Africa when Zimbabwean immigrants and refugees combine their meagre resources to ensure that the bodies of the deceased can be shipped back to Zimbabwe for burial; where the residents of Cape Town come together when fire threatens the city, volunteering their time, contributing water and food as well as financial resources; when rural communities come together to ensure their survival during times of flooding as we saw in Mozambique. Ubuntu is still functional and should be encouraged at all levels.


In South Africa we have an emerging new elite — people who are often first time university graduates in their families and who are first generation wealth. There is always the criticism that they should be giving back to society and there are expectations that the public should be seeing grandiose donations made to various causes. In reality, new wealth has massive demands on it. Individuals are expected to contribute to their extended families and there are significant obligations to their cultural roots. They are providing resources for school fees, uniforms, funerals, initiation rites, weddings and more. I predict that we are unlikely to see an immediate growth in formalised philanthropy until these obligations have been met over time.


Africa is a religious continent with various forms of Christianity as well as millions of Muslims. Faith-based giving falls into three categories: propagation of the faith; immediate charitable assistance to those of the same faith and more extended social development amongst all inhabitants of their countries. Faith based organisations play a significant role in the charitable sector and their contributions towards various community development programmes is considerable.


Corporate giving has been in effect in South Africa since the 1970s with the disinvestment campaign to encourage foreign companies to leave the country. The Sullivan Codes of that era outlined the conditions required for companies that chose to remain in South Africa. This included the importance of reinvesting in South African society, particularly to alleviate poverty and to develop disadvantaged communities. This led to a culture of corporate social investment which spread across the business sector and it remains to this day. However, corporate giving has been affected by the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment legislation that compels corporate giving for socio-economic development. Companies receive certain rating points, depending on their social investment and it is important for companies to be able to measure how many black people benefited from this investment. As a result, the kinds of civil society organisations that now receive corporate money are those that can count the output. This has skewed corporate giving to organizations that undertake clear service delivery rather than those organizations that might be more activist in their approach, such as those that undertake research and policy development or those that are involved in high level social justice issues.


The Southern African region also has a number of community and re-granting foundations that undertake important work to uplift communities that cannot often access regular donations from international aid agencies, the corporate sector or private foundations.


Lastly, private foundations have existed in South Africa since the 1930s. They were originally established by wealthy individuals and some have substantial endowments that have grown over time. Most of these foundations operate under the radar and there is currently no research that has been done to identify the size and scope of this sector. A research project is under way under the auspices of Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement. The foundations are registered as non-profit grantmaking organisations and focus on a wide range of areas. This sector has potential for growth and South Africa is starting to see the emergence of a new black elite, some of whom have established private foundations for their giving. Currently elements in this sector come together in a loose network called the Private Philanthropy Circle and this has led to a number of partnerships in their funding. However, we estimate that members of the PPC are really only the tip of the iceberg and that the size of local institutionalised philanthropy is considerable in the donor landscape of South Africa.


Many thanks to WINGS for sharing their blog post from Shelagh Gastrow. For more local information on giving in South Africa and much more, please follow her, @ShelaghGastrow.


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