Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

NEARLY 120 prominent South Africans launched their Five Plus Project last week, publicly pledging to give at least 5% of their taxable income to poverty-alleviation initiatives. They are to be congratulated: public role-modelling is critical to the evolution of philanthropy in South Africa. Indeed the rationale behind Five Plus — individual ethics and morality — could well be a catalyst for a public conversation about giving and associated citizen action. I would like to open the conversation by suggesting that in addition to ethical motivations, some members of the Five Plus group may also have social-justice motivations. What do I mean by this?

This month, 116,000 people in 194 countries participated in a global poll conducted online by the social activist network, Avaaz. They asserted that "… fighting political corruption, economic injustice and catastrophic climate change …" are the issues that matter most to them. So, if hypothetically these same people were part of Five Plus, would they consider directing their giving towards organisations contesting the issues that "matter most" to them? Or would they naturally gravitate towards the more "traditional" modes of giving?

I must stress that my argument is in no way a denigration of giving towards poverty alleviation. In South Africa, where the latest statistics show that more than 26% of our people live below the food-poverty line of R305 a month, the personal philanthropy of the more privileged classes often provides life-saving relief.

However, we also need active citizen engagement with organisations defending the fair allocation of the rights and benefits of our democracy. At Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa, we promote a conception of philanthropy in support of transformative and systemic social change. We thus believe that the social justice sector should be among the causes supported via local giving. In accordance with the tenets of our constitution, this sector fights for the rights of the marginalised, to highlight and combat increasing inequality, and for an end to the corruption and maladministration now endemic in South Africa. The sector is almost entirely supported by international donors at present — a patently unsustainable situation.

South Africa has among the highest global rates of sexual and gender violence, including against children, yet organisations combating this scourge are closing due to lack of funding. Thousands of pupils in Limpopo would not have textbooks were it not for the work of public interest law organisation Section27. The Right2Know Campaign — entirely funded by international donors — leads the struggle for the protection of access to information and media freedom. Around 2-million poor people would not have access to antiretrovirals without the work of the Treatment Action Campaign, which is still almost entirely internationally funded.

Business leadership should be drawn into this conversation. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu recently noted that the only path to sustainable economic growth is the full inclusion of the poor in the global system of commerce. Without urgent action to end prevailing inequalities, corporations will not have workers or customers, and inevitably their profitability will fail. Tutu suggests that the only permanent solution to inequality and injustice is broad-based economic opportunity, and that it is time for the private sector to focus its social responsibility initiatives more on systemic transformation and less on "charity".

The release of the Nkandla report has once again ignited public fury about corruption and incompetence. The public protector is deservedly South Africa’s corruption-battling hero; but what is not widely recognised is the work of the hundreds of civil society organisations protecting our constitutional rights. If some Five Plus members are convinced by my argument, that will be a happy day for the social justice sector. It is paradoxical that the acknowledged generosity and social responsibility of South African private funders, companies and individuals are almost never invested in the sector protecting the most fundamental aspects of our democracy.

Sound socioeconomic reasons exist for a shift in the giving practices of middle-class South Africans. Without quantitative information, we cannot be sure of either the volume or direction of this giving — anecdotally, it seems that most is of the charitable variety. In the words of Martin Luther King: "Philanthropy may be commendable, but it must not overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary."

Du Toit is CEO of Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa.