Sometime between the start of the yuppie revolution in the early 1980s and the global financial meltdown in 2008, some wealthy people decided to pursue philanthropy — perhaps as a way of giving a more humane face to capitalism and its attendant penchant for avaricious accumulation.
When American business magnate Warren Buffet pledged in 2006 to give away the bulk of his fortune to charity, a flurry of questions were asked: are such charitable acts just guilt-ridden attempts by skinflints engaged in an "alms race" to assuage the feelings of the poor? Or are they a much-needed intervention by the very capitalists who have created so much inequality in the world?
With Bill and Melinda Gates, Buffett launched the Giving Pledge in 2010, a campaign to encourage the world's billionaires to commit to giving most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. By the beginning of April, 105 billionaires had signed it.
South African mining magnate Patrice Motsepe announced earlier this year that his family was the first outside the United States to sign the pledge, promising to give away half the money generated by their assets to the country's poor.
Though the rest of Africa's billionaires may not have joined the Giving Pledge, they have been giving to various causes close to their heart. In early March, businessman and African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa announced that his Shanduka Group would donate R100-million to Free State schools, a pledge that was promptly matched by Kagiso Trust, an education support non-governmental organisation (NGO) with an investment wing.
During a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Africa's richest man, Nigerian Aliko Dangote, hinted that there was a considerable number of unknown African philanthropists who prefer to shun conspicuous philanthropy, opting instead to give anonymously — possibly for spiritual or personal reasons.
Last year Dangote gave away an estimated $35-million to help his poor countrymen affected by a cataclysmic flood in Nigeria. Jim Ovia, also from Nigeria, donated about $6.3-million to assist the Nigerian government in its relief efforts for the rehabilitation of victims of various flood disasters across the country. Last year his foundation gave a $320 000 grant to 10 young Nigerian techpreneurs to develop their individual tech businesses.
In Zimbabwe, businessman Strive Masiyiwa established a $6.4-million trust to sponsor at least 40 African undergraduates at Morehouse College over a four-year period. Masiyiwa also funds the Capernaum Trust, a Zimbabwe-registered Christian charity that sponsors scholarships and medical assistance for more than 28 000 orphaned Zimbabwean children.
In different parts of the continent the rich are giving back mainly because, in the words of the executive director of the Southern Africa Trust, Neville Gabriel, "many newly rich people in Africa do feel a strong social responsibility to give back to the communities from which they came.
"Across the board, there does seem to be a recognition that, with the levels of deprivation and injustice that we see in our world today, our common humanity demands a giving response from those who have more."
Gabriel believes there is a case to be made for the rise of philanthropy in Africa. His view is that, because of the global economic downturn, many community-driven development projects and social programmes run by NGOs are unlikely to see a return to past levels of support from Europe and North America.
"At the same time, Africa is experiencing sustained growth and the emergence of a new band of very rich people. Good social development initiatives now need to be sustained by new forms of giving as new wealth is created in Africa," he says.
"We need to take responsibility as Africans to support such initiatives. We can no longer rely on people overseas to do this. And if we make the shift, it will radically change the political sensitivities that there have been about foreign-aided development projects in Africa — for the better."
But if philanthropy is to thrive in Africa, it has to be accompanied by some form of government incentive, argues Amanda Bloch, an associate at local civil society organisation Inyathelo. South Africa in particular does not offer any form of benefits, which could account for the fact that local philanthropists are not lining up to sign the Giving Pledge.
"The Motsepes have nothing to gain financially by giving their money away. There are no tax breaks or incentives and, once donated, they cannot take the money back and their children or grandchildren cannot access the funds for personal use," she says.
"So what remains is a bit of good media coverage and a responsibility to ensure that their trust lives up to its mandate. Whether or not it delivers on the mandate will be in the hands of the trustees and their advisers."
In the broader scheme of things, Motsepe's philanthropy has not been an isolated case. There have been others operating below the radar. The Oppenheimer family, for example, recently announced a major new endowment of R1-billion to their Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.
The trust, established by Harry Oppenheimer in honour of his father, assists world-class South African academics and other notables. Pick n Pay chain stores owner Raymond Ackerman established Afrika Tikkun, an organisation that provides comprehensive care and support for vulnerable children in townships as well as encourages development for community upliftment.
Afrika Tikkun has invested in education, health and social services for children, youth and their families through a holistic development model. The Motsepe Foundation over the past 10 years has embarked on a wide range of projects, including improving school facilities, churches and roads; making donations to religious and faith-based organisations and traditional leaders for their communities; and women's empowerment initiatives.
When he signed the pledge, Motsepe said: "I decided some time ago to give at least half of the funds generated by our family assets to uplift the poor and other disadvantaged and marginalised South Africans, but was also duty-bound and committed to ensuring that it would be done in a way that protects the interest and retains the confidence of the shareholders and investors."
His foundation could dish out up to R283-million a year to worthy causes. The Motsepes did not respond to questions sent to them by the Mail & Guardian, other than to say the foundation had embarked on road shows to interact with the public on the intended usage of the money. In response to the rise of African philanthropists, financial services companies are setting up dedicated philanthropy units and international philanthropy advisers are heading to the continent.
Philanthropy has defanged the baddie status of some of the world's wealthy, and subdued the opprobrium that workers and the poor felt for them at the height of the economic meltdown.
Perhaps this can be attributed to their newly developed vocabulary to describe their approach to charity, which, needless to say, borrows enthusiastically from the business lexicon: they call themselves "social investors" or "venture philanthropists", and they try to make donations that are "high performance" and "strategic." Above all, they love to "leverage" their money.
One of the criticisms of "philanthro-capitalists" has been that sometimes their desire for data and control leads them to direct the lion's share of their resources towards the biggest and most accessible NGOs that can absorb large amounts of foreign funding, not the social movements that can put pressure on their own governments to perform in the public interest and mobilise large numbers of people to defend their rights.
As sustainability researcher Glenn Ashton says, philanthropy is a strange beast: readily defined, more difficult to ring-fence and impossible to control. Founded upon altruism, it becomes invariably entangled with ideology, politics and ego, all tied up with differing degrees of alienation.
Ideally, it represents love for their fellow humans and the environment in which they live. Philanthropy, however, is more than charity: charity is about providing food; philanthropy is about enabling self-sufficiency. Ashton, however, takes a dim view of the issue: "Modern philanthropy is little more than the illegitimate privatisation of state planning, aid and redistributive policies. Philanthro-capitalism is a misleading smoke screen for business as usual.
"For instance, the Gates Foundation has been criticised for both investing in GMO food giant Monsanto (and Coca-Cola and McDonald's), while actively promoting GMO crops as a technological solution to hunger amongst developing nations," he wrote recently for the South African Information Service.
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