Beyond Charity: Embracing Dignity in Our Giving on Mandela Day

In South Africa, July is synonymous with winter and Mandela Day. Every year, different campaigns are launched with the 67 minutes themes and opportunities. 67 minutes to honor the years of struggle against apartheid.

As South Africans who were witness to the change in democracy, this day can evoke memories but also provoke discussion and thought, as well as action.  What does it look like in 2023 to reflect on a just and equitable South Africa for all? What does it mean for people who are living in highly vulnerable circumstances in 2023?

There is constant debate around where we are as a nation in 2023, this can leave one feeling overwhelmed with the state of the nation and what to do for those we see or know in desperate need of clothing, shelter, food and so much more. So days like Mandela Day afford opportunities to reflect on both the need as well as what is needed so that things can change. The call to lessen vulnerability with practical hope, rather than hope as a philosophical ideal is needed.

Practically what could this look like?  

It means identifying real needs within community spaces – whether children’s homes or geographical areas that need to be responded to.  Real needs identified by the people themselves rather than what we see in comparison or feel as people looking in might be helpful. Development research repeatedly points to the fact that people know what they need but the power dynamics between those who have more in terms of resources (including money) vs those who need the resources make it hard to formalize or articulate these needs.

It means seeing the holistic impact of the giving we do and being honest about who it is for.  Even as a social worker – I appreciate the impact of the work we do, can weep when things don’t work but recognize that it is not altruistic- rather that I see and experience value in the work we do. I get something out of this – it makes me feel good to see people not need us – the unspoken role of social workers:  to work oneself out of a job.

Practically, it means reflecting on the way in which the story of giving is told.  Are people’s vulnerabilities and raw need shown up so that the gifts being given evoke a response – or is the story being told of a dynamic such as hunger that has a response for that moment or day being seen.  This isn’t to detract from the giving – rather to ask the question of how is this giving put into a context which can be empowering to the recipients? Not just for short-term relief but as a part of something bigger.

The how we tell a story includes the visual imagery too – the photos or videos.  As the director of Arise, Danielle Moosajie, often challenges us in meetings and strategic conversations:  Would you want people to see you in your vulnerability?  Where you have no control over what is understood or received in communication about us?  This can feel like a challenge when photographic evidence is understood to be a part of accountability towards donors  and yet what a beautiful opportunity exists to rethink how we are held accountable. An opportunity for a more dignified and positive strengths based partnership rather than highlighting people at their most vulnerable.

An example of this could be telling a story of how contributing snack packs formed part of a group process aimed at strengthening families who live in areas of food insecurity due to poverty.  It makes the poverty the challenge and not the people.  It reflects work being done in the space which is proactive rather than only identifying the broken or challenging family relationships.  It changes and empowers the recipients of the giving as active participants in their lives rather than requiring them to be rescued by others.

The reality is that giving (in all forms), financial donors and partnerships are necessary in reducing the gaps between different spaces.  In giving, opportunities exist for both parties, giver and recipient to both receive and give. Giving provides an opportunity for each person to press into a different aspect of their own humanity or to remember:

Umuntu ngumuntu  ngabantuwe are people through other people.

When we hold onto this, it changes how we give and see the recipients of our gifts as well as how the dynamic of dignified giving can change not only circumstances, but allows for us to invest in a bigger story too.

The story of helping is to see each other’s humanity as we seek to see a more just and equitable South Africa.

Written by Alexa Russell Matthews