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Patrice Motsepe, a mining tycoon from South Africa, attends a session at the World Economic Forum in 2009. Mr. Motsepe announced on Jan. 30, 2013, that he has joined Giving Pledge, a campaign by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to encourage wealthy families to give at least half of their wealth to charity.Christian Hartmann/Reuters

As a boy in an impoverished village in South Africa's apartheid era, Patrice Motsepe watched his mother giving free food to the poorest customers at their small grocery store.

It was a lesson he never forgot, even when he made history by becoming South Africa's first black billionaire. Ranked the eighth-richest man on the continent with an estimated fortune of $2.65-billion, the 51-year-old mining tycoon has become the first African billionaire to make a dramatic pledge to give away half the wealth generated by his family's assets.

It's a huge coup for U.S. entrepreneurs Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as they try to launch a global wave of philanthropy. They have persuaded nearly 100 billionaires to pledge the bulk of their wealth to charity, but most so far are American, and Mr. Motsepe is believed to be the first in the fast-rising African economy to participate in the program, the Giving Pledge, in which prosperous families are encourage to give away at least half their wealth.

The 51-year-old mining tycoon announced Wednesday that he has joined the Giving Pledge.

Members of the campaign have courted him for months. Last August he held talks with Mr. Buffett in Omaha, and last month Mr. Gates flew to Cape Town and met Mr. Motsepe to explain the Giving Pledge. At a press conference on Wednesday, Mr. Gates joined by video link to praise Mr. Motsepe's decision.

"South Africans are caring, compassionate and loving people," Mr. Motsepe said in a statement. "It has always been part of our culture to assist and care for less fortunate and marginalized members of our community."

But while most South Africans are strong believers in the traditional African philosophy of ubuntu – humanity and generosity towards others – their generosity is often expressed in small informal donations to schools or village causes.

Charitable foundations in South Africa have struggled to win support for large-scale formal philanthropy, especially from the nouveaux riches who gained their wealth after the fall of apartheid. Some black entrepreneurs, popularly known as "black diamonds," have been criticized for donating only a small percentage of their income to charity. But there are signs that this is now beginning to change, and Mr. Motsepe's pledge is the most visible example.

Born in Soweto township and raised in internal exile in the village of Hammanskraal where his father was banished for criticizing apartheid, Mr. Motsepe earned a law degree at university and became the first black partner in one of South Africa's largest corporate law firms. He ventured into the business world in 1994, the year when Nelson Mandela became the country's first democratically elected president.

He made his wealth by acquiring old undervalued mine shafts and founding African Rainbow Minerals, which has interests in coal, platinum, gold, iron ore and other minerals. Forbes Magazine ranks him today as the fourth-richest man in South Africa.

He has dabbled in soccer, owning one of South Africa's best-known soccer teams, but he and his wife, Precious, also set up a charitable foundation in 1999 and became increasingly active in philanthropy. He has reportedly donated about $10-million to charity since 2005.

He is not the first billionaire philanthropist in Africa. The Sudanese telecommunications entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, for example, has been giving away millions of dollars on governance projects for several years.

Mr. Motsepe did not disclose any precise figure for his planned charitable donations, but said he would contribute "at least half of the funds generated" by his family assets.

He said the money would help to improve the lives of "poor, disabled, unemployed, women, youth, workers and marginalized South Africans."

Another goal of his philanthropy was "an ongoing obligation of nation-building" and "uniting black and white South Africans," he said.

In the apartheid era, many South Africans were slow to embrace the term "philanthropy," which was often perceived as the domain of white missionaries and churches. After the demise of apartheid, there was still an assumption that the state should take care of the poor. Only recently has there been greater pressure on the rich to play a more active role in philanthropy and broad social issues.

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