With Bill Gates landing on our shores, students have questioned the role that large scale philanthropy should play in the future. At its core, this type of large scale philanthropy is ideologically at odds with the recent call of students. We need to honestly assess what each asserts, whether they are consistent and authentic in their assertions and how this leads to structural and transformative change for the oppressed and marginalised.
Current philanthropy feeds into our current economic system which perpetuates the economic and social inequalities of the feudal system, enabling the figure of the disproportionately rich philanthropist who also plays ‘moral leader’ to continue. The conditions that allow for the continued existence of this type of philanthropy in our context are a result of the very ‘feral capitalism’ whose effects it is trying to treat.
This then raises the question: what is the actual goal of this philanthropy? Can it assert that ‘all lives are equal’ and honestly work towards the material and social outworking of that assertion while its existence is dependent on a system that fundamentally contradicts that assertion? If there was a genuine attempt to assert that all lives are equal, all philanthropists would be endangering their existence as elite. Since this risk is not commonly part of large scale philanthropy, we can assume that the structural nets, the filtering systems that prevent such an overturning of economic and social power not only remain unchallenged, but work alongside this type of philanthropy.
To understand how this differs from the call of students we must look at their rallying cries. The students’ major calls are for economically and philosophically free education, access, decolonisation and for belonging. The student movement is differentiated in its view of meaning and implementation but there is consensus that the current structural conditions are inherently prejudice and exclusionary. The call is for the dismantling of linguistic, economic, or labour systems that have been organised to serve the subjugation of the working class and blackness. They tackle methods of perpetuating economic, social and political elitism and privilege, calling for them to end.
In contrast to the students dismantling of exclusion and oppression through a result of collective action, disruption and education, philanthropists are trying to uplift poor and marginalised communities is a result of the same system that has put and kept those communities in their subjugated positions.
Whilst philanthropists power stems from wealth and networks, students given power through education and from being in urban centres. Yet students have challenged their own power through methods of protest that ‘take power’, philanthropists do not challenge, but extend their power to the realms of governance and morality.
If the underlying principle of philanthropy is that all lives are equal, then it is not an optional action based on virtue, but a necessary action based on conditions. If the call is that all lives are equal then the burden of philanthropy is not only to raise the standards of living of the poor, but to facilitate their self sufficiency, independence and to lower the excessiveness of the wealthy. If this is their call then there must be strategic use of economic and social power in a way that slowly dismantles it and leads to an eventual relinquishing of that power, with an understanding that this relinquishing serves themselves as well as the poor.
If the call of students is that all lives are equal, there must be a similar willingness to relinquish the social and economic power that makes their protest more impactful than the hundreds of service delivery protests that happen in townships and rural areas. There must be a willingness to welcome the rest of the country’s population into the position that we currently occupy. This willingness seems to be present. However, there must also be an acknowledgement of the change that a student community can make in surrounding communities, if self-empowered and organised. It has become increasingly evident that parts of the student movement speak of an unknown mass of people when they talk of access and contextualisation. Students must recognise that while the system and institutions are flawed, so are we as a student community.
We must understand the interplay between the structure and the individual and stop portraying actions that perpetuate unjust power relations as love. It in within this paradigm of re-assessment and self-reflection that we can look toward a different kind of philanthropy, that recognises the loss of humanity in the rich and the poor, constantly challenges itself, and is not at odds with a radical challenging of oppressive structural conditions. This philanthropy that searches for the human face in itself alongside disruptive challenges to oppressive structures articulates ways of living out an imagined future.
Moodley is a student activist at the University of Pretoria