The Spirit of Giving

Published 10 years ago
The Spirit of Giving

Not everyone gets a second chance to do things over, least of all presidents. But two rem-arkable former leaders are doing it again, out of office.

The first is former US president Jimmy Carter, who managed to reinvent himself through his philanthropic work with Habitat for Humanity.  A renowned peace-broker, Carter recalibrated his image, which had been severely dented during the Iran host-age crisis, through his dedication to providing affordable, low-cost housing to poor Americans.

Carter has also played a pivotal role as a member of the Group of Elders, former heads of state who speak out on issues of global leadership.


The second is former South African president Nelson Mandela. While in office, Mandela was hemmed in by numerous global factors that inhibited his new government from undertaking fundamental change.

When he retired from active politics and executive office, Mandela dared to tread where he had been unable to as the country’s first democratically elected president. Through his altruism, Mandela has managed to re-engineer his legacy and is today recognized as one of the world’s greatest philanthropists.

Known affectionately by his clan name, Madiba believes in fundamental change rather than charity. It is an outlook which is embraced by the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), which was formed in 1999 to support the causes that were close to the statesman’s heart, especially those he could not focus on while he was in office.

However, attaching the Mandela brand to projects is a risky undertaking, especially as many are keen to profit from the icon’s name, including those who would use the brand for selfish ends.


Sello Hatang, who is the CEO of the NMF, says the foundation, has to be mindful of what is considered peer-based philanthropy. This occurs when projects are undertaken for financial benefits, such as tax breaks, instead for bringing about long-term change.

The NMF also guards against encouraging consumerism and instead focuses on building skills and knowledge within communities.

“Communities must be empowered… and assisted to see what they can do for themselves. Of course it is done with help of others from the outside,” says Hatang.

“It is important that whenever you do a philanthropic program you don’t throw money at the problem, but you find out from these communities what they need the most.”


He cites an example in which the NMF visited a community in Limpopo that wanted a library. While his colleagues were on-site, they realized that while there was no library in the area, there was a greater need for ablution facilities at a local school.

“What my colleagues found was children washing their hands in buckets and then because there is no fresh water, they also drink from that. So it is important that you don’t come in and impose what you think is best for communities, but rather find out from them what they need. We are now going back to the drawing board and we are now addressing the issue of water and a library.”

The foundation believes that for its philanthropic work to have value, community members must have a sense of ownership over the projects. The NMF encourages locals to be part of its initiatives by chipping in, financially or otherwise.

“So we would say for example (to a school): ‘You have to pay something towards the library.’ So for example they would raise R20,000 ($1,900), and the library is R220,000 ($21,000). They give it to us, we don’t collect that money. We give it back to them and say: ‘Now you use this money for a sports field or to improve something in the school.’ But there is a sense that they paid for it,” he explains.


Sustainability has to be at heart of philanthropy if it is to transcend charity, something Hatang is keenly aware of, and which saw the work of the foundation undergoing a shift from its initial remit.

As the Mandela brand continues to grow, it has massive clout, especially with corporations and businesses keen to be associated with it. The foundation is no longer a philanthropic organization that gives money to projects, but is itself is a donor-funded organization.

“Whenever we find a new partner who comes in who wants to work with us… we do ask that they submit their founding records, check they are registered and that they do things above board,” says Hatang.

Because the NMF does not deal with money directly there is little chance of it being swindled of cash. However, there still are chancers who want to make a profit off the Madiba brand.


Hatang cites an example from early in 2013, when a pizza company was bust for lying. It claimed that for every pizza sold, R1 ($0.10) was don-ated to the foundation.

Something else Hatang says the NMF has to be acutely aware of is building the brand of Mandela instead of denuding it.

“We always have to strike a balance between managing the brand, protecting the brand, and making sure that people can use it for good. That balance is what we always struggle with. We try to have people concentrate on giving for Mandela day and doing it genuinely and in a sustained way. Not necessarily for their grand enhancement.”

Nelson Mandela International Day, which falls on Madiba’s birthday on July 18 and which is recognized by the United Nations (UN), is where the foundation focuses most of its philanthropy.


“The rallying call is: Take action, inspire change. Make every day a Mandela day. Because we believe you have to bring about structural changes (to make a real difference),” says Hatang.

Mandela day is theme-driven, and education has been the main focus over the past three years. Events are decided on in consultation with the UN and the South African government.

This year the foundation prioritized literacy, school feeding programs and housing. The latter included bringing in corporates, with the help of local aid organization Gift of the Givers, to build homes in Johannesburg’s impoverished Alexandra township. The year before, Habitat for Humanity helped the foundation provide homes for residents of Orange Farm informal settlement in Gauteng.

With its literacy initiatives, the NMF has received a lot of help from international charity group Breadline Africa. The organization has helped build libraries across South Africa and fill them with books.

“We believe a learned community is an empowered community. We have young people who are still struggling. And with the kind of education we have at the moment, we want to build on it. Instead of pointing fingers, do something about it. And sometimes it’s minimal where you just build a library,” Hatang explains.

South African packaged goods company Tiger Brands and mobile communications giant Vodacom have been brought on board to help supplement the school feeding scheme.

“Tiger Brands, with the Department of Education, have a program where they feed the kids. I think it is breakfast and a lunch. This one that we have introduced is different. We launched it in July where kids are given food parcels when there is a long break. They get fed at school, but because of the levels of poverty, for some of the kids that is the only meal they have the whole day. Now what happens when they are on school holiday? They get the food parcels to take home on the last day of school,” says Hatang.

The program was launched in

Alexandra and is being rolled out to the rest of Gauteng, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.

When the NMF was launched, the philanthropic projects it undertook were infrastructure-heavy, as most of the communities that Mandela visited asked for clinics and schools. In 2004, the foundation realigned itself, focusing on  philanthropy, dialogue and preserving the memory of Mandela.

Hatang says these elements are vital to build South Africa, as they help to create social cohesion.

He is particularly proud of a new project that sees South Africans and international players assessing how communities have moved on from repressive pasts and how they deal with that oppression.

“This is us venturing into the international community. This is the first project where we are spreading our wings. It is important that South Africa learns from others. We tend to think that we know it all and that we have done it all. There are communities that have gone through what we went through, maybe for not as long as we have, and they are still learning. There is room for us to learn,” he says firmly.

The foundation is also spreading its wings on the continent and has started to look at projects in other African countries that complement its values and objectives. Cooperation in trade and industry and greater intra-African trade between South Africa and her neighbors create the ideal context for branching out. One of the initiatives the foundation is currently considering addresses how African countries are moving away from alienation toward more cooperation.

In a similar effort to encourage social cohesion, cooperation and tolerance, after the drastic rise in xenophobic attacks in 2008, the NMF used its Dialogue for Change program to get people talking. South Africans often blame foreigners for taking ‘their’ jobs, as many migrants are willing to work for less money and under unfavorable conditions.

“We shouldn’t always just be pointing fingers to make excuses sometimes for our own failures,” Hatang points out.

He says the next dialogue series will focus on young people. The highest unemployment rate in South Africa is among the youth, and as a result, many of them turn to crime and other social ills.

“It is really needed. It is clear that young people feel alienated because of the level of unemployment hitting them very hard. You have alienation because of political processes where young people don’t feel included enough; also because of the fact that they didn’t live through what the older generation lived through. Young people also need to feel included in terms of decision-making processes.”

A resource that will prove invaluable to future generations is the NMF’s memory archives, a collection of Mandela’s papers that capture a sense of his life and the times he lived through. Hatang says the archives include various books and publications, including a graphic novel to teach pupils about Madiba’s life.