As July draws to a close, at the end of the “Mandela Month”, I find myself reflecting on its relevance in this day and time.

Every year around the middle of July, corporates and individuals run around looking to find organisations to give their 67 minutes to. The trend has been to dedicate this short time to a worthy cause on this one day in the year. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is an honourable initiative founded in the spirit of the great man and former statesman in an effort to pass on the baton.

We heard his voice shared in snippets over various media during the time, where in one of them we hear him say, “The world remains beset by so much human suffering, poverty and deprivation. It is in your hands to make of our world a better one for all. It is in your hands to make a difference.”

Thinking impact

I find myself wondering if dedicating 67 minutes to a cause is making any difference to the organisation we select. In the work that I do, I have found that how and what we choose to give can be very vital in empowering others. Too often, we may tend to approach charities thinking that we are helping them, when we haven’t taken the time to engage with them on their needs and priorities. We swoop in like heroes in the night, bearing what we believe to be gifts, which are meant to be received with great gratitude and praise. Something that feeds our human egos, no doubt.

While working with many civil society and non-profit organisations, we hear disturbing stories of people and corporates donating broken, dirty and dilapidated goods that they no longer need. Or, even requesting to throw parties for the day or paint walls that are actually in need of being rebuilt. And they’re offended when their offers are rejected due to the mere state of the ‘gifts’ that are expected to be useful to those people and environments for some awkward reason. Is this the humanity and dignity that we are practicing or portraying in what we preach on this auspicious day?

PR Opportunity

While watching a TV breakfast show on the 18th of July, my views were corroborated when an insert was shared of a company that took the time to collect hand-knitted scarves from different people, clubs and organisations. They then donated these to primary schools in two under-served communities, where they kept highlighting their own great work with the collection as the scarves were said to assist in keeping the children dramatically warmer over the winter months so that they would be able to concentrate better in class.

What struck me the most was what was said by the teacher from one of the schools, that probably wasn’t even heard by the corporate. She said that the school didn’t have heaters in any of their classrooms, which are freezing during winter. This would strike me as a need that may or may not have been communicated, but where the corporate took the decision to take another PR-worthy route in order to hand-over mere scarves to children who sit shivering in the cold, expected to listen attentively in class. I can’t help but highlight the indignity that is communicated non-verbally, when choices about needs are made on behalf of those who the contributions are meant to assist. Instead of making an effort to ask where the greatest need is, and focus on that in a manner that will suit and make the benefactor happy.

‘Band aid’ over a bleeding wound

This year, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of irritation and disappointment at what we continue to see happening around us despite how long this Campaign has been taking place. I was comforted by views shared by some on radio, who were bold enough to express their opinions and non-support of the Campaign this year. I feel that I honestly cannot continue to celebrate a day that perpetuates a once-off contribution as a sort of solution to the social ills and injustices that we see in our society today. Offering a meagre plaster to the real underlying causes or situation, as it were. After years of supporting the Campaign since its inception, I really find myself at a juncture where the only thing I can acknowledge about the day is that it was the birthday of this admirable and highly-honoured leader.

On the flip side, sadly, every year we find many community-based NGOs looking forward to July and December to receive donations from people and businesses. This, mind you, is where most of the support to those who are under-served takes place – “on the ground” as they would call it. More often than not, you find that these organisations struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis in order to keep their lights on. These organisations are mostly established and run by humble citizens who have dedicated their lives to responding to the social challenges that surround them – a modest and thankless job. For the rest of the year, these projects continue to exist and keep their doors open by grace and prayer. 

New face of Community Development

I believe we are breeding NGOs that have become dependent on hand-outs, instead of investing more time and effort in assisting them to become more self-sustainable. We are breeding organisations that are now expecting freebies during these times of the year. I believe we should begin investing in empowering people with skills and information that will contribute to them becoming more self-reliant. That will assist them to be able to apply these relevantly within their contexts in order for them to lead in discovering the solutions to their challenges.

I believe, when all this Mandela Day hype is dead and buried, we need to begin to call for an evolution of this cause in order to ensure that this Campaign progresses from where it begun, where it is now and the manner in which it has been running to date. We cannot continue giving these charities when it suits us twice a year as this breads resentment and an air of expectation – which is not healthy either. How do we expect them to survive the other months of the year?

Socio-economic Investment

With rising unemployment rates and the state of our economy, it is clear that the number of those in need is going to continue to increase, in the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. We should be investing in programmes and ideas that capacitate people with sustainable solutions so that they are not dependent on hand-outs, but can rather can be self-sufficient. We need to use this day as a day to applaud those companies, individuals and NGOs who are progressive in how they are giving and receiving support – showing and ensuring that after the month is over, the ‘begging bowl’ won’t be on the front stoep, empty and waiting to be filled by passing good Samaritans.

As people, business and social groups, let’s genuinely make every day a Mandela Day, by selecting a cause that speaks to us to support in some way on a consistent basis – whether it be making time to be hands-on or contributing financially to its running. We could also select an NGO to support that has a proven track record of positive impact and an ethical leadership team.

Let’s face it, we all don’t have the heart or stomach to be hands-on, nor will we fix all of our challenges at one go. But we can all contribute and play a role in some way. Whatever makes you comfortable, let’s commit to it and follow through on it as beneficiaries count on it to survive. Whatever you do, please let’s not wait for Mandela Day to do it… because there are people in need all around us, every day of the year; not just in July and December. Let’s join hands to make a difference in our society. Together. In the spirit of Ubuntu and Madiba, our Legend.