By Johnathan Bunce
African philanthropy has been in the news recently, with the January 30, 2013
announcement that South African’s richest black citizen, Patrice Motsepe, will be
giving away half of his family’s wealth during his and his wife Precious Motsepe’s
lifetimes. This announcement was greeted with interest in North America, as
Reuters reported that Motsepe is the first African philanthropist to sign up for The
Giving Pledge. Founded in 2010 by leading U.S. philanthropists Warren Buffett and
Bill Gates, The Giving Pledge is “an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and
families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the
philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice either during their
lifetime or after their death.”
The Founder and Executive Chairman of African Rainbow Minerals, a mining
company with interests in gold, platinum, coal and ferrous metals, the 51-year-old
Motsepe, whose personal worth is estimated at R22.99 billion ($2.58 billion CAD),
said he was inspired not only by Buffet and Gates’ initiative but also by southern
African traditions of generosity. In a press release announcing his pledge, Motsepe
stated, “South Africans are caring, compassionate and loving people. It has always
been part of our culture and tradition to assist and care for less fortunate and
marginalised members of our communities. This culture is also embodied in the
spirit and tradition of Ubuntu/Botho.”
Ubuntu is variously defined as a southern African humanism, philosophy,
worldview, ethic or personal quality. Danish philosopher Christian B.N. Gade’s
investigations showed references to Ubuntu began appearing in written sources in
1846, though until the mid-1900s, it was only used to define a human quality, before
being applied more broadly to describe a philosophy or worldview. More recently,
ubuntu was discussed considerably during transition from white minority to black
majority rule in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the 1990s, and that “it was during the
period from 1993 to 1995 that the Nguni proverb ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’
(often translated as ‘a person is a person through other persons’) was used for the
first time to describe what Ubuntu is.”
At its core, Ubuntu is the recognition that all people are interconnected and that no
one exists in isolation.8 As the Nguni proverb suggests, in Ubuntu we discover our
own selfhood through other people – through community, collaboration and co-
operation; through openness, kindness and generosity towards others. Prominent
South African public figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former
President Nelson Mandela have both expressed admiration for the Ubuntu
philosophy. In his 1999 book No Future, No Forgiveness, Tutu said: “A person with
Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened
that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from
knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others
are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
While Ubuntu is a word in the Bantu language, Botho is the Botswanan word for the
same concept in the Tswana language.
The generous spirit of Ubuntu can also be seen expressed in the philanthropic work
of the Ubuntu Institute, who work towards the eradication of HIV/AIDS and poverty,
the empowerment of women and providing access to education in Africa9, and the
Trust Africa Foundation, concerned with securing the conditions for democracy and
cultivating African development, enterprise and properity, “through collaboration
and partnerships with like-minded institutions and donors.”
Press release: “Motsepe gives half to the poor.” Motsepe Foundation. 30 January 2013.
Lakmidas, Sherilee. “First South African billionaire donates fortune to poor.” Reuters. 30 January 2013.
“About” page. The Giving Pledge. http://givingpledge.org/ 3 February 2013.
Corporate summary. ARM Annual Report 2009.
Volgraaff, René. “No problems for the rich as they get richer.” Times Live (Johannesburg). 4 September 2011.
Press release: “Motsepe gives half to the poor.”
Gade, Christian B.M. “The Historical Development on the Written Discourses on Ubuntu.” Department of
Philosopy and History of Ideas, Aarhus University, Denmark. 2011. Kearns, Ann. “Ubuntu: A South African perspective of philanthropy.” Global Giving Resource. 29 January 2013.
Ubuntu Institute. http://ubuntuinstitute.com/ 3 February 2013.
Trust Africa. http://www.trustafrica.org, 3 February 2013.