New research shows an estimated $2.6-billion a year could be available in pooled social contributions by Africa's emerging middle class, says Southern African Trust executive director Neville Gabriel.
The research, yet to be made public, indicates that the money could be used for social upliftment of the poor and disadvantaged in Africa.
"There are many wealthy South Africans who are already doing philanthropy and it is a rapidly growing practice," says Gabriel.
"It would be wonderful for many more to recognise that the extreme levels of inequality and the depths of poverty that we have are scandalous and unsustainable — and to do something voluntarily to change that situation, like giving more of their riches to social and economic development initiatives.
"But it's not just the super-rich who do philanthropy. There are many ordinary people who struggle to make ends meet for their own families but still give generously to help others. That's philanthropy too."
According to Gabriel, philanthropy has in many ways become an aspirational practice and is motivated by a morally compelling case, religious convictions, or even the need to ensure political acceptability and other forms of credibility.
"There are many people who get involved in social giving to boost their personal or company brand, or because they want to live a more meaningful life, or because they are compelled to do something. Many newly rich people in Africa do feel a strong social responsibility to give back to the communities from which they came," he says.
"Across the board there does seem to be a recognition that, with the levels of deprivation and injustice we see in our world today, our common humanity demands a giving response from those who have more."
Shelagh Gastrow, head of the annual Inyathelo Philantrophy Awards, says giving is not new in Africa: "Charity has always been part of religious teaching and it goes back thousands of years."
She cites the example of the endowment in 1264 of Merton College at Oxford University in the UK by Walter de Merton.
"The college was to be a new type of educational establishment: independent of church and state, fully endowed, self-governing and selfperpetuating. This forward-looking philanthropist made a major systemic impact on tertiary education, history, science, intellectual thought and academic freedom for centuries to come," says Gastrow.
South Africa is fortunate to have many people who have been willing to make financial contributions beyond their taxes, she says.
"We estimate that funds given back to society through structured philanthropic activity is in the region of at least two to R3-billion a year.
"Organisations involved in almost every facet of South African life have benefited, such as those in health, education, environment, sport, music, the arts, culture, youth development, community development and welfare," Gastrow says.
However, Christa Kuljian, an independent development consultant who was commissioned by the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University to research comparative global philanthropy, cautions that while philanthropy is an important aspect of democracy it is not sufficient on its own to ensure a democratic and equitable society.
Societies do not rely merely on generous individuals and companies that give back a percentage of their profits to community needs, she writes.
"Democratic societies need democratic governance and just and accessible institutions - both public and private — that build a more equitable society.
"In South Africa poverty and unemployment, as well as other forms of inequity, could continue as a reality for generations to come, especially given the pace at which these issues are being addressed. Those who benefit from South Africa's strong economy need to move more quickly to implement strategies that address South Africa's poverty.
"It is the role of the government to align incentives and guide big business in that direction.
"Government must promote redistributive justice that includes attention to assets such as land reform as well as income transfer such as pensions, child support grants, and a basic income grant," says Kuljian.