Study shows how a western concept of charity undervalues South African generosity

future world giving, philanthropy

South Africa believes it can make a difference. Image by Jonathan Gill via Flickr


Nine out of 10 people give time or money according to new study of South African giving. However, the report also reveals that formal civil society organisations are struggling to gain the support of ordinary donors and raises questions about how we define charitable giving.


It is often observed that by applying western conceptions of charity in assessing non western nations, we might be undervaluing the innate strengths and capacities of civil society. I Believe I Can Make A Difference – a new research report from CAF Southern Africa provides compelling evidence from surveys undertaken in South Africa that this may indeed be the case.


The survey revealed that during the three months prior to interview,  94% of respondents gave goods, 85% donated money and 56% volunteered. Such figures paint a remarkable picture of a society in which, as the reports title suggests, 53% of ordinary people believe that they can make a difference. Though informal giving to individuals is common (56%), the study found that 63% had given to a organisation in the past three months.


Giving activity of respondents in the past 3 months (%)

Giving activity of respondents in the past 3 months (%)

Clearly, the strong findings show that the human kindness and generosity – or ubuntu – remains a strong tradition in South Africa. That tradition, though replicated at its most basic level n all countries, has distinct characteristics in South Africa. Sadly, a lack of recent data on giving in the country – the last notable study, A Nation of Givers (Everatt and Solanki) took place in 2005 –  has prevented us from further developing a South Africa specific understanding. Until now.


Surveys for I Believe I Can Make A Difference took place in Gauteng province – the most populous and also most affluent of South Africa’s 9 provinces – and surveys were conducted in such a way that increased giving  in the Christmas period and the start of the new school year are covered which, it must be conceded,  may have skewed the data positively. 1,252 people were surveyed as part of the project and though not statistically proportionate, all demographic groups are represented in the data.


Though the study cannot provide us with a fully representative national picture, it does provide an important snapshot into the underlying dynamics and capacity of South African giving. The report finds that of the 64% of people who reported giving to organisations in the past three months, only 16% gave to formal NGOs/NPOs. The rest gave to a range of less formal (and possibly under-recognised outside of South Africa) causes, including two types of organisation which were especially popular; stokvels and self help groups.


Where those who give money give to (%)

Where those who give money give to (%)

42% of those who donated to money to an organisation of any kind gave money to stokvels. These  are form of rotating credit union or saving scheme in which regular fixed payments are made by all and members take it in turns to receive the pot. 37% of those giving to organisations in the past month gave to self help groups. These typically operate member saving schemes but also offer training and development activities to members.

SA graph

Click to enlarge


Though the above organisations might not seem charitable in the strictest sense, and a strong case could be made for their exception from this category, their scale, and the good that they do in society mean that they should not be overlooked in any appraisal of South African civil society.


It has been estimated that as much as half of the adult population in South Africa is a member of a stokvel and that they have a combined worth of R25 billion (US$2 billion). If not directly “charitable”, the service that they provide without profit to members – by connecting communities, promoting solidarity and offering an alternative financial services industry for those not served by private sector banks – certainly amount to charitable outcomes. Similarly, self-help groups facilitate mutual learning as well as saving that creates a resilience at the individual as well as the community level that would clearly meet most definitions of charitable outcomes. Furthermore, the potential for these organisation forms to develop into new philanthropic institutions with buy-in from a huge membership.


This potential is highlighted in Kenya by Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT), the financing facility for the Kenya Federation of Slumdwellers – winners of the first 2013 Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize, organised by Alliance Magazine. Comprising more than 700 community savings schemes consisting of 300,000 people, it is able to use some of its members’ money to invest in larger projects such as building homes.


Clearly then, it is only right that we make more of an effort to broaden our perspective of what terms like charity, civil society, giving and philanthropy mean. Globally, there are different models for giving with different strengths and weaknesses and we must endeavour to recognise these and ensure that when we try to promote our conception of giving, we don’t miss the potential of existing models.


However, at the same time, we do need to move the dial on giving to formal civil society organisations. The CEO of CAF Southern Africa, Colleen du Toit, is quoted in the press release for the report as saying;


“While it is great to see people who are so generous with their time and money in Gauteng, the most densely populated province in South Africa, there is a great need to support official NGOs which have the structure, organisation and resources to make a real difference in the long term.”


That only 16% of donors who give to organisations in South Africa give to formal NGOs/NPOs is a source of concern. South Africa faces a multitude of problems which are not limited to the endemic poverty and inequality which continues to blight the country in the post apartheid era. Over and above the provision of services for the needy, civil society organisations are uniquely placed to campaign for policy changes, hold the powerful to account and promote social justice on behalf of their supporters.




Adam Pickering





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