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Editorial: Patrice Motsepe’s hard act to follow

Until Wednesday, Patrice Motsepe was better known for spending his almost limitless money on his Sundowns football club and on donations to the ANC than he was for charity. Now, with one press conference, he has signalled a major realignment of the landscape of South African philanthropy.

In pledging to donate half of his earnings to charities, he joined a movement sparked by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the US billionaires who are doing much to shake up the debate about the responsibilities of those who have benefited most from soaring individual wealth accumulation.

There will no doubt be a good deal of discussion about how high Motsepe's announcement sets the bar for South Africa's elite, which has an uneven record of charitable giving. Giving away such large sums may well be more redistributive than any "broad-based" share scheme.

But his decision brings into sharp focus some of the problems that face philanthropy in this country. The first is that the tax regime does not encourage giving. It is easy to understand why – tax breaks are in effect subsidies for charity, which mean proportionally less money goes to the priorities of the state, and more to the sometimes quixotic priorities of donors. Given the urgent need for resources and the limited capacity of the government to spend effectively, that may be a problem worth living with, up to a point.

Secondly, the regulatory environment surrounding the non-profit sector is in flux and, although the state relies on charities for vast swaths of its welfare responsibilities, botched moves to deregister non-profits and impose tighter regulation on civil society organisations point to real bureaucratic and political hostility. For Motsepe's money to achieve its best results, that must change. He is in a unique position to make that happen, but it cannot be at the cost of the credibility or independence of the programmes he backs.

He got off to an extraordinary start this week. Now for the hard part.

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