In our view

Private funding will help to keep democracy alive. By Shelagh Gastrow - 17 October 2014 - Business Report


The key difference between private philanthropic funding and money coming from the government or the corporate sector is the issue of accountability. Mark Shuttleworth is putting money into defending constitutional rights in Africa. 

shelagh shulttsworth1

We are living in a fastchanging world with new technologies, new paradigms, rapid urbanisation, more instability and hugely complex issues to manage. This requires innovation, long-term thinking, the use of resources for greatest impact and systemic change. This also means we have to find ways to co-operate, collaborate and build alliances.

What we also know is that innovation does not come from the centre, but it emerges from the edge. New ideas are often first seen as unconventional and are contested by those who hold the reins of power. While mainstream now, the women's movement and the environmental movement both emerged from the edge.


Philanthropy has often funded innovation, particularly in areas of research and socio-economic development. The key difference between private philanthropic funding and money coming from the government or the corporate sector is the issue of accountability.

Companies have to take into account issues relating to their image, their reputation and the views of their shareholders, while the government is in control of public money, which requires care in highrisk situations. At the same time, political parties have to consider the views of voters. Philanthropic money, which is personal, is more independent and can take higher risk.

The daring of philanthropy is that it can go where no one else can, it can innovate, it can seed new ideas and initiatives, which can later be taken to scale by the government or the corporate sector. It has low levels of bureaucracy and can act fast, especially with innovation. This means philanthropy has leverage and convening power.

South Africa is a society that is continually pushing the boundaries - whether it is in the area of socio-economic development, new business models, innovation and technology, within the universities, political formations and in the civil society sector. However, most critically, we are moulding our judicial system by continually challenging issues through the courts, which has a major impact on a range of issues that affect our daily lives and how we are governed.

South Africa has a history of philanthropic giving. It has been operating for many years through faith-based organisations in the form of charity, and also in more institutionalised ways through philanthropic foundations. These foundations currently form the bedrock of support for many civil society organisations in our country.

When Mark Shuttleworth made his fortune in 1999, he established the Shuttleworth Foundation, which provides funding for people involved in social change. More recently, he made the headlines when he contested the 10 percent tax by the Reserve Bank for moving his money abroad. After winning his case, he indicated that this money would be invested in a foundation run by "veteran and retired constitutional scholars, judges and lawyers" that would provide support for organisations and individuals who needed to litigate "where the counterparty is the state" both within South Africa and on the rest of the continent. The objective would be to "address constitutional rights for African citizens at large, on the grounds that our future in South Africa is in every way part of that great continent".

Litigation in South Africa is often used as a way to engage with our new constitution and it is an important part of the cut and thrust of our new democracy, testing and assessing the limits of our rights and responsibilities. At the same time, it is extremely difficult for most citizens to litigate and therefore this fund is a welcome addition to those few other sources of funding for litigation.

Going to the courts is always a last resort for citizens who will have tried many other avenues to engage with the state or the corporate sector. Both the government and corporates are well resourced in comparison with individual citizens or non-profit organisations, and philanthropy can play a key role in supporting various initiatives to ensure that our bill of rights and our constitution are defended. Shuttleworth's contribution is a forward thinking decision which will hopefully play a significant role in ensuring that our democracy survives and thrives.

Shelagh Gastrow is the executive director of Inyathelo: the South African Institute for Advancement.