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The Big Read: For richer and poorer

01 July 2014 - 02:04 By Justice Malala
ROAD AHEAD? Those who have made it in democratic South Africa should realise that what is in the public interest is in their and their children's future interests, too
ROAD AHEAD? Those who have made it in democratic South Africa should realise that what is in the public interest is in their and their children's future interests, too

The prosperity that many of us have been blessed to enjoy for the past 20 years comes with massive responsibility.

It brings with it tough questions: How much money is enough? And what is it for? With the massive poverty around us, is it enough merely to accumulate, and accumulate more?

People often ask what they can do to make our country better. I often see them struggling with loss of political power and unsure how to be an active participant in our society. These are people who have succeededin business and other spheres but they struggle with the meaning of their lives.

This has led to the mushrooming of philanthropic "foundations" in our country. Celebrities have foundations. First, and second, ladies have foundations. Ordinary people have foundations. Rich people have foundations.

Many of these foundations are nothing more than fronts to extort money from companies, or vanity projects that have neither focus, structure nor meaning.

They have no impact on the real challenges that face us.

This is because real philanthropy, and real engagement, is harder than most people think. It requires one to make tough decisions about what one engages in, and how to do that.

Too many of the foundations are set up merely to show that the founders or patrons are doing what the government wants them to do. They are set up to further their leaders' interest in securing tenders and other business. They do society no good.

I was inspired to read what American magnate George Soros had to say about philanthropy. He wrote, in 2011: "I have made it a principle to pursue my self-interest in my business, subject to legal and ethical limitations, and to be guided by the public interest as a public intellectual and philanthropist.

"If the two are in conflict, the public interest ought to prevail. I do not hesitate to advocate policies that are in conflict with my business interests.

"I firmly believe that our democracy would function better if more people adopted this principle; and if they care about a well-functioning democracy, they ought to abide by this principle even if others do not. Just a small number of public-spirited figures could make a big difference."

That, I believe, is the key issue to reflect on concerning all these foundations. The truth about our 20-year-old democracy is that society is a much better place, because of the constitution we live under, than it was in the 46 years of crazy, nonsensical, cruel apartheid rule. It behoves us to want to see our children living and benefiting from what has been given to us by the architects of this constitution.

That is why we have to protect our constitution. That is why we have to ensure that the united, non-racial, open, democratic society we have forged over the past 20 years is strengthened - to allow our children to enjoy it in the next 20 and 40 years.

Unfortunately, there are too many business individuals and politicians among us whose only drive is to accumulate, accumulate and keep on accumulating.

They rob, bribe and corrupt their way to the top of the pile.

There are consequences to this, and these are that the society our children will inherit will be a far darker, far more corrupt, far more closed and undemocratic place than the one we live in today.

This is the power of what Soros is talking about. We all need to rise above our own interests and see that the greater good, the public interest, is key for all of us. Sometimes the public good will be inimical to our own narrow interests but that is when our citizenship will be tested: to choose the greater good, the public interest, or our own selfish and immediate gratification.

So what is to be done? In the next decade those who have made it in South Africa will be challenged to engage with the rest of the country.

Two paths beckon. The one is to put our heads in the sand and just keep making money. The other is to put our selfish interests aside and say: "Our children will live here and therefore we need to build a great country for them to inherit."

For the rich, here is a quote from Henry Ford that may inspire action: "The highest use of capital is not to make more money but to make money do more for the betterment of life."

For the rest of us, to speak, to speak, and to speak again about what is good for us, our children and our future.