/ 18 November 2020

Q&A Sessions: Legacy of giving, born of poverty

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Sello Hatang. File photo by Paul Botes/M&G

You’ve travelled more than 20 000km in less than six months, trying to give help and hope to many across the country during the pandemic. Why do you do this work?

You know, I think deep down I am more of a humanitarian than anything else. Like today is World Kindness Day. And we extended a hand to artists. I think we lack people who extend a hand to say, “Let me help you”. I have been able to see the best and the worst in our country through the work I do.

The best and worst — that is an interesting way to put it. Tell me more.

With the best, you have a 70 plus-year-old woman whose house gets destroyed by the storm. The community every month contributes something towards rebuilding it. Then lockdown hits. The community loses jobs, and they can’t help anymore. We go out, and a donor agrees to finish off this woman’s home and makes it even bigger than the community had planned. That’s where you see that we have people who are actually about giving. 

And then you also have the other extreme. We were meeting with community workers. I think we were giving them about 100 packs. They then start telling us that there are people who have been collecting food parcels since the beginning of lockdown. They now have groceries stacking up in their houses. So you also have that extreme of greed where people can’t say it is enough.

You see a lot of people who have nothing. How do you not get to the point of saturation from the poverty and the pain you see? 

First, it comes from always reminding yourself where you come from. I always remind myself that I was once that child who would queue for apples. The moment you forget that you’ve lost the course. 

In other words, whenever I go to a community and I see it, I hear someone saying “I haven’t had food for the last three days”. 

Here in Southfield [Cape Town], we were distributing food parcels. We drove around until we met a granny taking care of about five grandchildren. It’s bitterly cold. The little one is there, maybe about six years old. And the granny starts weeping. She asks: “Why are you crying, granny.” Granny tells the little one she will never understand.

She says to me: “I wasn’t sure what I was going to feed them tonight.”

For this memory to stick with you, it must have touched a part of who you are.

I have gone through days without food. My sister and I were talking to my mother late last year, and I didn’t realise that both of us have the same memory of what would happen when my mother would walk into the house in a particular demeanour. We knew there was no food that day. 

So you become kind of programmed to know if you are going to have food or not. We couldn’t have food for two or so days, but we knew that on the third day, my mother would make a plan. She would come in and say something about a cat sleeping on the stove: a euphemism that shows that there will be no food tonight. 

That is what I remember, and I never want to forget it. Saturation will come the day I forget that.

The Mandela legacy is quite significant, and I can’t imagine the pressure that comes with ensuring you keep that legacy alive and not get it wrong. How does that feel?

This is a pressured environment. There are days when I use bad language, you know, because I’m feeling the pressure. Something is not being done the way I want it done, and I just lose it. Then I think this doesn’t represent the legacy as it should be. But that legacy is the legacy that I have to carry and make sure that it thrives. I think sometimes my colleagues will think in most instances I am very hard. 

But you know I work very hard, and in that there is no time for mediocrity. Everything you do needs to have a sense of excellence, not perfection. Perfection is the next level that we are striving for. 

The work you do comes at a price, though. It can’t be easy running such an international organisation and being a family man.

Interesting that you asked that question because this week, I was speaking to our chairman of the board, and I said to him I’m exhausted and I can’t wait for the end of the year. But the thing that makes me more exhausted is not connecting to the people that matter the most. 

Professor [Njabulo Ndebele, the foundation’s chairperson] reminded me of what Oprah said when we hosted her in 2018. She said: “You can’t give what you don’t have.” And you’re drawing from that well; if it’s empty, there is nothing you can provide. I have to keep reminding myself of that. 

These days, I have a test when I’m invited to an event. Will they miss me? If the answer is no, I go to those who I know will miss me.

Speaking about big names, are you friends with all these celebrities? Because they all love Nelson Mandela and you can just pick up the phone and call them.

I remind myself that I’m not one of them. They are celebrities. My friends are not celebrities. In fact, my moments of stupidity are with those people.

I have one funny story about celebrities. So we are hosting [the rapper] Drake whom I had met a couple of times at NBA events overseas. 

I kind of knew he was Drake. But I didn’t — and I’m honest — I didn’t know how big the name was. 

So Drake comes here, and there are so many people at the foundation. It’s packed with media everywhere. My daughter then sees this on television. She thinks: “My dad was with Drake.” 

So I get home, and she says: “So you were with Drake, and you didn’t just have the courtesy to call me to come with you. I was not going to embarrass you.” 

I said: “Yeah.”

She was like: “Daddy, you were with Drake! What’s your problem?”

Come on; it was Drake. Don’t you ever have groupie moments?

Actually, I did at a book launch of one of my favourite authors. I decided I needed a photo with Bonang Mohale … and I was so excited to get a picture with him.