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Can philanthropy be in service of social justice?

By Bongiwe Mlangeni, CEO, Social Justice Initiative (SJI)


There is a narrow winding road between wealth and social justice. It is a journey that is marked by paradoxes, ironies, and complications and a daily reality when raising funds for social justice work in South Africa.

First, let’s allow the uncomfortable truths to simmer. The capital that funds the work of civil society – be it from government taxes, stocks, local and foreign foundations, individuals, corporates, gambling – is derived from the very unjust global systems they wish to dislodge.

Those who create, manage, distribute, and receive philanthropic wealth are intricately linked in a system that benefits some and excludes others. The fear of losing access to money, power, and influence is a real factor and determinant of behaviour. Anand Giridharadas in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, aptly captures these discomforts and asks if beneficiaries of the world system can be the ones driving change?

The trappings make the journey of raising funds for social justice work arduous. The flagrant injustices that the deep levels of inequality foster in South Africa offer little reprieve, even for those who are realising the benefits and value of a constitutional democracy.

Civil society organisations in the sector often bemoan the lack of funding for their work. This reality contradicts the research done in 2016 and 2018 which estimates annual social investment of about R4-billion from high net-worth individuals and R9-billion by corporates. If about R13-billion is available annually for social investments, the issue appears to be a lack of access rather than scarcity of funds. Why does this lack of access persist, especially for those who seek to address and change the systemic injustices that South Africa has lived with for so long?

Questions have to be asked why large investments in education and social welfare/development have yielded less than expected for the last 25 years? What’s limiting the change? Is there something in the structure of our economy, politics, or gender asymmetries that society can benefit from if it shifted? Which organisations are working on these issues and how can they be best supported? What other forms of education (non-formal and formal) and care could better serve society in the long term? Who is implementing these alternatives and how can they be supported to reach scale?

In conducting philanthropy or social investments, strategic choices have to be made, not based only on solving the immediate but mainly at driving systemic change for the long term. The idea that every bit helps (which often translates to minimal donations to multiple organisations), changing a life at a time, makes no sense when billions of rands are available and can be spent more wisely to achieve systemic and multi-generational impact.

The quote is familiar: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Social investments cannot keep flowing in one direction with negligible gains, unless the intention is just that – to keep things as they are. In the same breath, social justice initiatives cannot keep looking for funds in the same way or places. Without the courage and resolve to act and think differently, we are doomed to live below the aspirations that our constitution has enshrined.


Bongiwe Mlangeni is the CEO of the Social Justice Initiative, which mobilises resources for social justice work.

This article first appeared in Inyathelo's 2019 Annual Report

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