Building a culture of giving and social justice philanthropy in South Africa
By Barry Smith
July 2006

Barry Smith is Regional Director, Southern Africa, of The Synergos Institute.

To many, the term philanthropy connotes"charity" or vertical giving from rich to poor to alleviate the symptoms of poverty and inequality, rather than to change the structural, systemic marginalisation of the majority. Barry Smith points to the emerging practice of social justice philanthropy and suggests that we need multi-sectoral collaboration -- and a cohesive social giving sector -- to overcome South Africa's massive social deficits.

This article was prepared for the 2006 edition of The CSI (Corporate Social Investment) Handbook produced by Trialogue. The CSI Handbook is designed for practitioners and decisionmakers in the field of corporate social investment in South Africa, as well as for people working in the development sector more generally. In particular, the book will assist those seeking to partner with other interested stakeholders in order to achieve greater developmental impact.

Culture of giving, vision of equity

South Africa has deeply rooted traditions of social giving and mutual help. Traditional value systems, including"ubuntu," as well as an extensive web of religious affiliations, underpin patterns of community help. Studies have shown that the poor themselves have sophisticated systems for financial and non-financial mutual help while giving is an intrinsic part of life for all South Africans, rich and poor.

At the same time, the Constitution offers a compelling vision of a more just and giving society, entrenching basic socio-economic and cultural rights. Internationally, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the UN's Global Compact for business provide further touchstones for basic social justice and sustainable development targets.

A fragmented social giving sector

Yet South Africa still lacks a coherent, joined-up"social giving" or"philanthropic" sector -- largely as a result of the extensive class, race, ethnic and sectoral divides that remain 12 years into democracy. Much lip service is paid to the need for multi-sectoral collaboration and partnerships to address the challenges of poverty and social exclusion. But the reality is that enormous divisions remain among the various actors in development -- business, government, local grantmakers, NGOs and CBOs, religious organisations, private philanthropists, Northern NGOs and international donors.

Towards social justice philanthropy

Synergos, with its partners in Southern Africa, works to bridge these divides through initiatives like the Synergos Social Giving Forum, a series of multi-sector dialogues on social giving. With increasing numbers of development organisations around the world, Synergos is also focusing on the practice of"social justice philanthropy."

Broadly, such a paradigm promotes equity, tackling the power and resource imbalances which reinforce poverty and hopelessness. As well as"vertical" exchanges of resources, it values"horizontal" exchanges of support within and between local communities. Social justice philanthropy doesn't just mobilise financial, material and voluntary resources more strategically; it also fosters empowerment of communities through access to knowledge, ideas and decision-making. In contrast, traditional philanthropy tends to stress the mere act of giving without changing deeply rooted social and economic patterns that perpetuate poverty and inequality.

Business can make a difference

Although social justice philanthropy may not yet be common parlance in South Africa, the idea resonates with important values and priorities in the CSI sector, like redressing historic imbalances, transformation, empowerment and sustainability. Business has a critical role to play in growing a multi-sectoral culture of giving, infused with an ethos of social justice.

With its pivotal resources of finance, expertise and innovation, business can really make a difference. But it cannot do so alone, or without a vision of the fairer society we want to achieve. It is time for us to escape our silos, develop a common language and hammer out a shared agenda for a collaborative giving sector. Only then will we tap the full potential of all -- business, state, civil society and citizens -- to make our dreams of social justice a reality.