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No More Heroes? Philanthropy in a post-Madiba world


By Nicole Rose Nieman, 2013 Emerging Leaders International Fellow, Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, The Graduate Center, CUNY

“What is the role of philanthropy in the 21st Century?”  A friend challenged me before I left my home country, South Africa, for a semester fellowship in New York City this past fall.  I came to this global epicenter of philanthropy for a fresh perspective on the role and relevance of ‘the love of humankind’ in an increasingly complex, dynamic global society.

Like many before me, I quickly fell in love with the vibrant, unique and dynamic NYC. However, I have been unable to shake certain parallels that emerged so strongly with my beloved South Africa, namely gross inequalities that fall predominantly along racial lines.

Not so different

Unlike my home country, where violent crime dictates where you can and should not go, I found a new freedom of movement in New York’s city center.  However, I was quickly warned where beyond those bounds I would need to be accompanied, even in daylight.  As in cities the world over, freedom of movement, for residents and non-residents alike, is restricted along the lines of affluence and race.

Even at a glance it was obvious.  The way the metro lines deteriorated the further up from Manhattan you went, who used the metro and who climbed out where, where resources were allocated and what it cost to access them, etc.  Beneath the shiny surface, these divides appeared well-devised, or at least well-maintained by a powerful set of systems.  Prof.  Jonathan Jansen, renowned South African educationalist and author, refers to this systemic inequality as ‘topographies of power.’

The parallels really hit home for me with the passing of my hero and past President of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.  My colleagues and I celebrated the man who changed the fate of our nation and the world, but we also mourned our incomplete march towards a truly equitable South Africa.  Our country is beautiful, vibrant and multi-cultural, and yet so desperately struggling with basic service provision – let alone addressing systemic barriers to economic opportunity, near on twenty years into democracy. 

Those who spoke at Tata Madiba’s memorial service held at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, NYC, underscored the similarities between the United States and South Africa, with urgent pleas for reformation in the face of failing education systems, growing inequality and deepening poverty and unemployment.

No more heroes?

In today’s complex, hyper-connected world, there is no time to wait for individual heroes to challenge these entrenched inequities and take us into a new era.  Rather, we need entire generations to turn the tide on poverty and social injustice.  The Arab Spring, for example, appears to have no legendary saviors but rather millions of brave people who risked their lives for their beliefs. 

Likewise, the social sector is not waiting for philanthropy to lead social change.  Organizations can now use the internet and social media to raise funds, from anywhere in the world, instantly and free from foundation funding delays and burdensome reporting requirements.  Many great innovations in recent years have emerged with little or no philanthropic funding.

This is not to say that philanthropy is irrelevant. Many foundations remain major players on the global stage and have made huge contributions towards social change, both “from the top down” and from a grassroots level.  I continue to believe in philanthropy’s relevance and potential. And yet, some nagging tensions weigh on my mind:

  • How can philanthropy support continual racial progress in a world that seems so committed to the notion of a post-racial society?
  • What more can foundations do to model and accelerate the arrival of more equitable, democratic, and participatory forms of civil society?
  • How does philanthropy need to change in an era in which social change is less dependent on its dollars?
  • How can philanthropy create space for others to lead?

I remain struck by the extent to which my peers in both New York and South Africa are struggling with these same questions.  At the same time, I am emboldened by these words of Tata Madiba’s: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.  Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural.  It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.  Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great.  You can be that great generation.”  Let us continue to confront together the harsh realities that keep us from becoming the equitable society we yearn so desperately to be.


  1. wrote on January 28th, 2014 at 10:34 am

    Sindiso Mnisi Weeks

    This is such an important message! I think it’s really brave of you to put it out there. Too often do people with money get to think that they are being “charitable” in attempting to alleviate poverty and inequality when as you rightly argue, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.” I love Cornel West’s words that capture similar sentiments: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” All of us privileged folk need to be reminded that, when we advance the cause of equality, we’re not doing anyone a favour, we’re just doing what’s right.
    I also think you’re right to point out that the post-racial and colour-blind discourses are very problematic. Post-racialism and colour blindness are things only people who are not daily negatively affected by their failure to possess (often white) privilege have the luxury of proclaiming. For the rest, race is as real today as it was a century ago … Only more pernicious because of its not being as blatant (especially as it is embodied in law) and because of the post-racial discourse.
    Thanks again for your very thoughtful piece.

  2. wrote on January 29th, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Nicola Soekoe

    I enjoyed reading both this article and Sindiso’s comment. One can only hope that the downfall of the “hero” ideal is accompanied by the downfall of charitable acts pursued with a mindset of arrogance and pity for the recipients of the charitable act. Only when this mindset is replaced by one of true civil mindedness can social empowerment arise even in the face of glaring economic equality. Thanks for sharing!

  3. wrote on February 1st, 2014 at 4:54 am

    Paul Tosio

    This is excellent. Thank you for taking the time to write this piece.

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