Ubuntu Philanthropy: Defining a Uniquely South African Spirit of Giving

In African philosophy, the concept of Ubuntu is revered as a foremost tenet of African thought. How does this uniquely-African philosophy feed into a South African brand of philanthropy? And what does Ubuntu philanthropy look like in practice?

“Ubuntu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’,” says Desmond Tutu, former Primate of the Anglican Church of South Africa. At the centre of this philosophy is a desire for citizens to live in a way that positively influences others from the family unit to local communities and beyond.

The spirit of Ubuntu is echoed in the way South Africans give and donate, says Associate Professor and columnist William Mervin Gumede. “In many poor communities, conscientious local community members selflessly [help] others, [share] the little they [have] with others more destitute, and [provide] a shoulder to lean on to those in despair.”

Like Gumede, South African researchers Bhekinkosi Moyo and Katiana Ramsamy comment on the link between Ubuntu culture and Ubuntu philanthropy in South Africa. “In African cultures, one’s neighbour cannot go hungry when the other could give help; this is reflected in South African philanthropy.”

With the dawn of the new South Africa in 1994 came efforts to infuse democratic policies with the essence of Ubuntu. The White Paper for Social Welfare, published in 1997, described the proposed legislation and initiatives for social welfare in post-apartheid South Africa. Within this document, Ubuntu is listed as part of a national social welfare plan as a vital element of philanthropy that encourages mutual support and compassion among all people, bringing a new culture of caring and giving to South African.

Today, private philanthropy in South Africa continues to be protected under the banner of democratic rights. Clause 18 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa enshrines the right of freedom of association, which allows citizens to establish organisations and participate in philanthropic initiatives with an unrestrained passion for giving and social change around South Africa.

Hearteningly, most South African’s choose to use this right to give, which is evident in reports such as the South Africa Giving 2017. According to the report, philanthropic giving in South Africa is mostly channelled towards alleviating poverty. The report found that 58% of South Africans had donated to support vulnerable communities and 88% had participated in charitable activities.

While grand gestures by the mega-rich often attract the most attention and press, giving by our everyday South African citizens is where Ubuntu truly shines. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “all of us must take responsibility for the upliftment of our conditions, prepared to give our best to the benefit of all.”

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