Inyathelo in the Headlines

Lessons from my father - 24 Nov 2011 - Times Live

For as long as I can remember, my father seemed to struggle.

His love letters to my mother are filled with painful stories about how to raise the money to get from Lansdowne to Montagu to sustain their long-distance courtship.

By the time he died, Dad drove a horrible little vehicle on which many panelbeaters had taken out their frustrations. That blue panel van should have been one of the Seven Wonders of the World, not this big rock you Capetonians go bananas about.

Abraham once tried to hawk fruit and vegetables, but was always in debt because any aunty with a hard-luck story would be given a bag of squash or potatoes with those memorable words: "Ag, sort me out next time."

Of course, next time never came.

He was a driver for Nannucci, but that, too, was difficult because he would often give the dry cleaning to a poor client and pay out of his own pocket.

In this distinguished audience tonight there are many Abrahams, and the only reason I agreed to come tonight was because this is a special group of people who represent the country we do not have, but about which so many of us still dream.

I do not want to speak tonight about those who give millions; we are grateful to them. I want to talk, rather, about those who give of themselves.

Those winning awards this evening teach us three important lessons. You teach us that, in a kleptocratic culture, we have in you the seeds of a counter-cultural movement that can push back against greed, corruption and the shameless display of wealth. You teach us that what makes this country great is not the big men of politics but the small people of philanthropy. Y ou teach us that unlocking the potential of communities lies in the concrete actions of citizens determined to make a difference.

And so I wish to pay tribute to those who give sacrificially. I pay tribute to the mother who puts her domestic worker's children through the same school as her own children. You understand how important it is to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty in destitute families.

I pay tribute to the teacher who stays after school ends and comes in before school starts to provide extra lessons to children whose parents can't afford tutors for after school maths or science. You understand the way out of poverty is not through political connections to powerful tender committees, or through nationalisation of the mines to feed a voracious elite, but through the one chance available to the poor - a solid school education.

I pay tribute to the NGO leader - like my recently deceased friend Clem van Wyk of the Global Development for Peace and Leadership Programme - who spends endless nights worrying about whether she can meet the salary bill of her staff; all because that leader has a compelling vision to meet the needs of youth in a broken society. You understand that you can reach into the crevices of society which government programmes often cannot access.

The fact that we give of ourselves and from our own limited resources to help destitute individuals does not mean we must not ask questions about the deep structural inequalities in our society. We need to struggle for the kind of politics and the kind of economy that enables us to create a more equal and more just society. At the same time we need to struggle against the demagoguery that pretends to speak for the poor while disrupting the educational and life chances of the poor - as in the threatened Eastern Cape teachers' strike on the eve of the final examinations.

I am convinced that what keeps this country together is not the powerful but the ordinary; people like you.

As I travel up and down this country talking to ordinary people, the question I am most often asked is this: Is there hope for our country? Is there a future for our children?

My answer is simple. If it were up to our government, I must confess, I am not sure. What keeps me optimistic, however, is that I have witnessed over and over again the capacity of our people to give out of nothing and to sacrifice for others without the expectation of reward.

Of course there is hope for our country.

Because of you.

A shortened version of the speech delivered by Jonathan Jansen at the 5th Annual Inyathelo Awards for Philanthropy on November 15 in Cape Town Save & Share