Speech by Prof.Jonathan Jansen, VC, University of Free State during the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards, 2011
For as long as I can remember, my father Abraham (or Abie, as everyone called him) was always struggling. His love letters to my mother, Sarah, are filled with painful stories about how to raise the money to get from Lansdowne to Montagu for their long-distance courtship. By the time he died, my father drove a horrible little blue car, given to him by his brother-in-law Goliath (a small man) that many panel beaters had taken out their frustrations on. That blue little panel van should have been one of the Seven Wonders of the World, not this bloody rock that 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 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 just give the dry cleaning to some poor client and pay out of his own pocket; I remember as his after-school assistant transactions like 3- and-6 for a pair of trousers.
Abraham eventually became a missionary- which in our church meant you were dependent on gifts from brothers and sisters whom themselves were often poor- but that did not stop him from giving away the shirt on his back to a man who said he could not come to the service because he did not have a clean shirt.
In this distinguished audience tonight there are many Abrahams, and the only reason I agreed to come tonight-apart from the remarkable recruitment (some might say ‘begging’) skills of one Adrienne Coetzee-was because this was a special group of people who represent the country we do not have, but that so many of us still dream of.
I do not want to speak tonight about who give millions; we are grateful for them. I want to talk, rather, about those who give themselves. Let me say what I mean.
You see those winning awards this evening teach us three important lessons:
1. You teach us that in 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.
2. You teach us that what makes this country great is not the big men in politics but the small people of philanthropy.
3. You teach us that unlocking the potential of communities lie not in jamming sessions around slick national development plans but in the concrete actions of citizens determined to make a difference.
And so I wish to pay tribute to those who give this evening, and who give from within their limitations.
1. I pay tribute to the mother who puts her domestic’s children through the same school as her own children; thank you. You understand how important it is to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty in destitute families.
2. I pay tribute to the teacher who stays after hours and comes back in before school starts to provide extra lessons to children whose parents cannot afford the expensive tutors for after school mathematics or science. You understand that the way out of poverty is not through political connections to powerful tender committees, or through the nationalization of the mines to feed voracious elite, but through the one chance open to the poor-a solid school education.
3. I pay tribute to the NGO leader-like my recently deceased friend Clem van Wyk of the Global Dialogue for Leadership Programme-who spends endless nights worrying about whether you can meet the bill of your staff; all because you have a compelling vision t meet the needs of youth in a broken society. You understand that you can reach into the crevices of society which the government can never 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. 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 threatened Eastern Cape teacher’s strike on the eve of final examinations.
In the meantime, what keeps this country together is not the power but the ordinary; people like you. I salute those who win awards this evening. I thank those who organized this opportunity to say thank you.
You know, as I travel up and down this country talking to ordinary people, the question I get asked most often 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 am not sure at all. But since I have witnessed, first hand, the capacity of ordinary people to give out of nothing, to love where there is hatred, to sacrifice without the expectation of reward…… for this reason, because of you, I am hopeful.