This week some amazing South Africans were honoured for their work.
They often operate under the radar, not expecting any public acclaim.
Yet the work they’re doing has cascaded across communities and touched the lives of people we seldom see.
It was hard not to return from the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards ceremony in Cape Town without feeling warm and fuzzy.
From the founder of Pep Stores, Renier van Rooyen, who has donated money for everything from soup kitchens to study grants to the woman who cashed in her R50 000 pension to start up a children’s home in rural Limpopo, philanthropists in SA are chipping away at poverty.
As Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Jonathan Jansen said to the awardees: ‘‘You reach into the crevices of society in a way that government programmes can’t do. What keeps this country together is not the powerful, but the ordinary.’’
In this debt-crunching economic climate, times are tough. More and more young people around the world are not making it to first base – to get that desperately-need job.
The outcry against greed, as expressed by the ‘‘Occupy Wall Street’’ movement, is growing. The gap between rich and poor is a gulf, especially in SA.
International funding, that used to be destined for SA, is at risk of being cut or channeled somewhere else.
Many NGOs are in a fix, as a large amount of their EU funding has dried up.
But despite the shaky times we live in, individual philanthropists are making a difference.
Shelagh Gastrow, who heads up Inyathelo, says individual giving is actually the largest source of donor money in SA.
It’s thanks to people like Renier van Rooyen. When he retired in 1981 at the age of 50, Pep had 500 stores, 10 factories and 10 000 employees, leaving him wonderfully well off.
But he’s ploughed a lot of his fortune into many community causes, including a mobile kitchen feeding 6 000 children, a child and youth centre, a trust and an NGO. At Christmas time, he distributes food and clothes to poor families on the Cape Flats.
Allan Gray, who was honoured together with Van Rooyen with an Inyathelo Award for Lifetime Philanthropy, has donated more than R1 bn over 33 years to education and other causes.
Together with his wife, Gill, he supports World Wildlife Fund, Cape Mental Health and adult literacy initiatives.
He’s donated R1 billion from his personal fund to the Allan Gray Orbis Fund, which provides scholarships for high school students and university undergraduates.
Then there are the gems that have ploughed their savings and their lives into helping others. Some, like Bridgitte Mamugubudi, have taken a leap of faith.
She quit her job, took her pension and opened her home in Venda to orphans and toddlers of teen parents. Within two years, she’s built a children’s home and a hospice and looks after 150 children a day.
The MD Of the Fashion Channel, Kanchana Moodliar has used her fashion savvy to create a self-employed sewing community.
She uses old saris donated from the Indian community in Durban to make tablecloths and designer items.
Whichever way they’ve done it, all awardees said that their giving had enriched their lives.
The philanthropy debate has taken off internationally.
Earlier this year, Warren Buffett called for a wealth tax.
The chairperson of Ferrari called for a surcharge on income over 5 million euros.
France’s wealthiest woman suggested the government take more from people like her.
And in Germany, it was suggested that a massive amount could be raised if the mega-wealthy paid a 5% wealth tax for two years.
In SA, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for a wealth tax, sparking debate.
Gastrow believes the government should make it more appealing for South Africans to give through creating real incentives for wealthy people to establish private foundations that will help to sustain our civil society in future.
In the meantime though, there’s nothing stopping a bit of generosity, even if it’s on a very small scale.
Just helping one child with getting a better education – or even just extra tuition – may go far.
‘‘You begin to understand that the way out of poverty is not through powerful tender connections, but the chance that you give to the poor to get a solid school education,’’ said Jansen.
So give a little more if you can.
It may just make you happier too.