Ben and Shirley Rabinowitz

“Although many South Africans are giving to charitable causes, I don’t think that we’re giving enough!” says Ben. “Everyone can give, no matter how small or how big the donation, or how rich or poor you are. There are many emerging elites and new billionaires in South Africa and I’m yet to see their contributions to society, save for a few.”  Ben and Shirley Rabinowitz received the 2009 Inyathelo Award for Lifetime Philanthropy.  

For more than 52 years, Ben and Shirley Rabinowitz from Seapoint in Cape Town, have been committed to personal giving which has supported individuals, organisations, projects and causes for education, health, human rights and justice in South Africa.  Their philanthropic activities extend further than the 52 years that they have been married. Growing up in a humble middle-class family, Shirley was taught that helping others was essential. She has never been able to pass a beggar without giving. Ben’s upbringing wasn’t much different - he’s always given to those in need.

This life-long commitment to helping others is what awards such as the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards hopes to celebrate and to encourage others in South Africa to do. Ben and Shirley have been nominated for the prestigious Lifetime Philanthropy Award.  The Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards held in Cape Town this evening recognises those people whose personal contributions have made a sustainable contribution to the communities in which they are active. Now in its third year, philanthropists are nominated for the award by their peers and members of the communities in which they work and by non-profit organisations that they support. Nominations are made for a particular category such as Youth in Philanthropy, Philanthropy in Health and Women in Philanthropy.

Not all giving has to be of the monetary variety, says Ben with a twinkle in his eye.   “Giving food, clothes or blankets to a person living on the street or supporting events are all ways in which to help. One can even take a stand against something that can affect your community, like environmental issues,” he points out.

What sets the Rabinowitz couple apart from most philanthropists that donate large sums of money to various organisations and establish funds and trusts is that the pair are not extremely wealthy. They describe themselves as neither rich nor poor. They have enough to meet their needs.  When approached for assistance, they seldom turn anyone away. 

“There are many avenues to take in order to raise the money needed,” says Ben. “We have often given to those whom the ‘big boys’ have refused to assist. I get really annoyed when people are denied assistance. We’ve taken loans and lived in overdraft in order to do our bit. We also don’t believe in giving money with strings attached.”

Ben and Shirley have taken many stands over the years. With a lifetime spanning the evils and hardships of apartheid and the opportunities of a new South African democracy, they are not afraid to speak out. They have done so against injustices ranging from basic human rights issues, sporting and education, to political and social injustices of the modern era. Nor are they afraid to sign petitions or contribute to causes that may impact on their community.

In the 1970s - during the apartheid era - Ben and some friends managed to find a loophole in the law which allowed them to play cricket with people of colour. The Varsity Old Boys were allowed to play the Cavaliers. They were one of the first mixed cricket clubs in South Africa.

More recently, they are involved in the Seafront for all project (SEAFA). The main goal of SEAFA is to protect and preserve the public open space along the Atlantic seaboard, from Mouille Point to Saunders Rocks this includes the Sea Point Pavilion and the adjoining promenade with its lawns and walkways against development which will restrict the public’s access to the area.

The couple support many organisations and institutions but their emphasis is on education. They have contributed to the African Scholar’s Fund for many years and are regular donors to the Rhodes Scholars’ Scholarship scheme. They also donate to universities and schools and have often helped individuals with funds needed for school or university fees.  Says Ben, “Children can’t study on an empty stomach. That’s why we’ve supported the Peninsula Feeding Scheme for the last 40 years and the African School Feeding Scheme for the past 20 years.”

He is very pleased that the government now subsidises the schemes.   But the couple wish that more people would open their eyes to the needs in their community and do ‘the right thing’- particularly with the huge number of children in need.  Recently they established the Ben and Shirley Rabinowitz Trust, which aims to support access to cricket for disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Their love for music and their desire that everyone should have the right to access good quality music and to learn these forms are some of the reasons why the pair supports the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra of which Ben is Chairman. The orchestra has outreach and education programmes which truly appeals to them. They also support Opera and Ballet. 

“I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for people to give,” says Ben. “Try to set an example for your children. Your actions can spur others on to do more.”