30 June 2008

Friendship                                                                                         by Murray Hofmeyr

The Hofmeyr Hall in Stellenbosch, where we hold our annual Western Cape function, stands as a monument for a man and his work. Prof NJ Hofmeyr, founder of the Christian Youth Society in 1874, is remembered as “a friend of the youth.” My thoughts on Studietrust as a monument were kindled by the Flemish philosopher Rudi Visker who recently introduced his new book at Café Riche on Church Square in Pretoria. Visker, whose book is entitled Ode to Visibility, argues that there is a dearth of visible symbols in the public space in South Africa in which people from different backgrounds and experiences can recognise each other. That means recognising yourself and the other in the same symbol or monument.  According to Visker the health of public space can be measured by the extent to which the common interests of the different members of a society are recognisably expressed in common public symbols like monuments. He specifically said he does not only refer to monuments of stone and steel, but of organisations and institutions, too. That got me thinking: Studietrust as monument?

Of what could Studietrust be a monument? My choice is the concept solidarity. The call of the French Revolution was for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (or Solidarity), but in the West little came of solidarity. It is very much each person for him or herself. Solidarity is problematic, for one thing on account of the legacy of the French word for state. The concept of state goes hand and hand with universality. People from different family backgrounds are equal before the law and enjoy the same universal rights. But what then about friendship?

Past and Future
People with a negative idea of solidarity criticise exclusionary forms of solidarity that are backward-looking.  The members of my tribe and family should, according to them, enjoy no preferential treatment from me in the public space. All have equal rights.

But should the baby be thrown out with the bathwater? The champions of solidarity argue for a forward-looking kind of solidarity. People could for instance work together to reach a common ideal in a project aimed at changing the world, and experience a solidarity that transcends patterns of origin.

The defenders of solidarity also point out that there are goods that do not diminish through use. This goes against the doctrine of scarcity, the dominant principle of the economy. A teacher who teaches a learner a skill loses nothing, and yet there is a return. When a person turns to someone in need out of empathy, there is an increase in his or her humanity, and not a decrease.

Giving in South Africa
A study on philanthropy in South Africa recently published by the HSRC (Giving and Solidarity) found that 90% of South Africans regularly give money and time in support of those in need. The average amount of money given per person per month is R27, and just under 2 hours of time is given per person per month.

This means that R921 million is given for charity every month in South Africa. That only represents 2.2% of the R43 billion that is earned in a month, but it still says something about our society.

The three causes to which people give the most are children and youth (22%), HIV/AIDS (21%) and the poor (20%). The reasons why people give are interesting: 93% of those interviewed give for the sake of building the new South Africa. 57% expressed the self-interest principle that always plays a role: they give now rather than lose everything in the end. 61% believe it is their civil duty and 68% characterised their giving as an expression of their solidarity with those in need and those who suffer.

In these statistics we see something of the other with whom we share the public space in South Africa and of ourselves.  The state looks after the universal, and remains by far the most significant player in combating poverty. But within the public space we find forms of solidarity that are not divisive and that allow new friendships to spring up.

Studietrust—a circle of friends
With regard to Studietrust I find the word friendship an apt description of our mutual relationship. That is what I tell our students during campus visits: I represent a community of friends from all sectors of society, people who are interested in them. At this important stage of their lives they may know that we are there for them, not only with our financial contributions, but also with time and advice.  We realise that poverty often goes hand in hand with lack of attention. We pay attention. It is unbelievable what positive reaction we receive to this message. The proffered hand is taken. We receive letters containing overwhelming gratitude. And our students’ success rate over the years averages at 90%! We always remind our student friends of their present role in this relationship—to grab the opportunity and make a success of their studies.

Here is a definition of friendship that fits Studietrust:    
Friendship is a distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other, for the other's sake, and that involves some degree of intimacy.

The last part in particular describes the Studietrust approach well: we visit each student on campus and regularly send letters and email messages to encourage them and let them know that we care. That we do on behalf of our donors.

In our newsletters to donors we regularly introduce some of our student friends, so that friends can gain insight into their respective experiences.