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The Globe and Mail

Giving continent: An African icon leads by example

South African businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele, who grew up in a rural village under apartheid, has become an outspoken advocate of philanthropy in Africa.

Erin Conway-Smith/erin conway-smith The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

As a child in a poor South African village under apartheid, Mamphela Ramphele slept on the floor and walked barefoot to fetch water. Yet her father always shared their meals with the hungriest of the village children – a lesson that has stayed with her throughout her extraordinary life.

Since those days, Dr. Ramphele has risen to remarkable heights. One of the few black female doctors of the apartheid era, she endured prison and internal exile as a political activist, and bore two children with her lover, liberation hero Steve Biko, who was killed in police custody. She became a professor and a university vice-chancellor, and a managing director of the World Bank.

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Today, she is an affluent businesswoman, serving on the boards of some of South Africa's biggest mining companies.

But she never forgot the experience of her childhood. It has made her one of Africa's most outspoken advocates (and practitioners) of philanthropy, donating time and money to dozens of causes, from orphanages and scholarships to broader causes such as African democracy.

"My father was always on the lookout for children who looked ragged, hungry or distressed," she recalled in an interview. "That child immediately became my sibling, [was]brought home and joined the family. We were barefoot, but my father didn't say, 'Well, if I have one more child, there's even less of a chance of buying shoes for my children.' "

Although Africa is often perceived as being perpetually on the receiving end of global goodwill, Dr. Ramphele is an icon of a new surge in philanthropy: a culture of giving that grows organically from its own people, rather than from foreign donors.

The transformation is beginning to take shape across the continent, but it is most striking in South Africa, its most industrialized country, where the economy has changed dramatically since the collapse of apartheid in 1994.

Some black entrepreneurs, the so-called black diamonds who became rich after apartheid, have set up charitable foundations. Others are sending money to their villages, providing support to vast extended families. It stems from the African humanist philosophy known as ubuntu – the notion of humanity and generosity in relations with others.

Charity in South Africa also stems from the awareness that it has become one of the most unequal societies in the world, where the gulf between rich and poor is dangerously wide.

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One survey found that 37 per cent of wealthy South Africans consider philanthropy to be among their three biggest spending priorities. This puts South Africa near the top of the global rankings, behind only the United States, in a study of more than 20 countries. A survey released this month, found that 83 per cent of wealthy black South Africans are supporting family and friends.

Another study, the most comprehensive ever done on the subject in South Africa, found that 54 per cent of all South Africans had donated money in the previous month to a charity or another cause. (By contrast, the number of Canadian tax filers claiming annual charitable donations fell slightly to 23.1 per cent in 2009, according to Statistics Canada.)

Under apartheid, the term "philanthropy" was often associated with white missionaries and churches. Even after 1994, there was a widespread assumption that the state – rather than the rich – should take care of the poor. But, in recent years, it has lost its negative associations, and the term is increasingly popular.

Among the newly wealthy who have set up charitable foundations are mining tycoon Patrice Motsepe, reputed to be the first black billionaire in South Africa, and wealthy businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, a former secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress.

Yet the growth of philanthropy here is fitful and incomplete. Many of the nouveaux riches still give only a tiny portion of their wealth to charity – if anything. Others give only to their home villages or extended families, failing to see philanthropy as a basic act of citizenship in their still-fragile democracy. Even the new charitable foundations often neglect the more controversial causes: human rights, democratic development, gender violence, and HIV and AIDS issues.

"This is first-generation wealth, and there are huge expectations from their extended families and the communities where they come from," says Shelagh Gastrow, executive director of Inyathelo, an institute that promotes philanthropy in South Africa.

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"In their home villages, they're now paying for school fees, funerals or initiation rites. Their communities are incredibly needy, and they give to them directly."

International donors are traditionally the main source of support for vulnerable South Africans, such as those with HIV and AIDS. But since the financial crisis in the West, those donors have been cutting back, Ms. Gastrow says, and South Africans need to pick up the burden.

Dr. Ramphele has often criticized the "black diamonds" for failing to donate enough of their money beyond their own families and villages. Too often, she says, the nouveaux riches have been tempted by the materialistic society that they inherited after apartheid.

"Some people are doing the right things, but unfortunately there aren't enough," she says.

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