A number of our supporters have signed the Five Plus Project Pledge and we are so grateful for their support. We received this letter from Hugh Corder of the Five Plus Project recently and would like to share this encouraging message.

REFLECTIONS ON FIVE PLUS AND POVERTY JANUARY 2016

Two years’ ago, my colleague and friend Anton Fagan brought me a copy of The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer, wondering whether I’d be interested in it. I read it over a weekend, and was hooked by Singer’s arguments, overcoming reservations about making public the extent to which I contributed to “worthy causes”, and about treating the symptoms of inequality and poverty, rather than the systems which produce and reproduce them.

Some three months’ later, we launched the Five Plus project, with almost 120 members already signed up in the preceding “silent phase”, and with magnificent support nationally in the form of a full-page spread in Business Day. Rather unrealistically, we imagined that well-off South Africans would flock to sign up, given the power of the arguments and the astonishing (and growing) levels of inequality which pervade our society. Spontaneous responses were negligible, and it took many hours and thousands of further emailed invitations from Anton to allow us to celebrate about 275 members by our first anniversary. Although the number remained small, we took comfort from the fact that most of those who had taken the pledge had increased the level of their annual giving to organisations addressing poverty in this country, and that it was likely that this translated into several millions of extra Rand going to such organisations.

The period since March 2015 has been a very difficult one for us at UCT, as well as in the higher education sector generally. The issues raised took much of our energy and attention, so that substantial new efforts to recruit members to Five Plus took a back seat. At the same time, Anton dutifully contacted each member on the anniversary of their pledge, to invite them to renew their commitment for the ensuing year, as we had said that we would. This has led to a decline in our numbers: some did not reply, despite repeated requests, others honestly declared their inability to give at the 5% level, and yet others merely withdrew. Only about forty people joined as new members, to offset the losses: we stand today at 245 members.

Yet we all know that poverty and the wealth gap in this country are growing steadily, particularly as the result of economic decline and the drought. Racism, prejudice and the entrenchment of irrationality grows apace: we are not in a good state, with seriously deficient leadership on almost all fronts. We all need a strong dose of encouragement, humility, critical introspection, and hope, it seems to me. This open letter seeks to spark such a response, based on the feedback from the NGO to which I give the greatest level of support.

The African Scholars’ Fund was founded in the early 1970s as a means of making textbooks available to black school pupils: most of us will recall that government did not supply them free, as it did to white schools. For the past 45 years, the ASF has been raising funds to grant approximately 2 200 bursaries annually to high school pupils who reach a reasonable minimum standard in at least English and Maths, from Grades 10 to 12, in the area covered by the old Cape Province, many of them in rural towns. The amount of the bursary is extremely modest: in 2015 it was R 900, enough to cover the “school fee” payable even at non-feepaying schools, and leaving money over for books, a tracksuit, stationery, and so on, at the pupil’s discretion. For most such pupils, this is a substantial encouragement to study and succeed, and the Fund’s staff frequently provide advice and encouragement. The matric success rate is high.

Last month, I received a list of the seventeen pupils who have benefited from my contributions over the past year: the Fund allocates pupils to all donors, and reports to them on their academic progress. I was struck by a number of aspects of the mid-year reports of these children, most of whom were in Grade 11 in 2015:

  • They achieved averages across all their subjects ranging between 53% and 78%, with the average across all 17 being about 65%;
  • Five came from the Western Cape, the rest from the eastern Cape province, several of them from deeply rural and impoverished schools;
  • The typical family structure is an absent/unknown/ deceased father (fourteen out of the 17, of whom four were deceased), and an absent/ unemployed mother (twelve out of the 17); and
  • Almost every “family” depended almost totally on social service grants from government (child support/ disability/ grandparents’ pension), seldom exceeding R 1500 per month, and mostly also supporting several siblings or other dependents.

Yet despite these appalling circumstances, the children showed determination and commitment to learn: several of them had written letters of appreciation to the Fund, which were passed on to me, as the nominal donor.

I recount these facts NOT to publicise my donation nor to promote the Fund. I do so because the above account demonstrates abundantly the impact that a relatively small monthly donation can have across a wide geographical area and among the very poorest in our society. I am sure that every one of us could tell similar or even more striking stories, and we encourage you to let us know of your experiences, so that we can share them with our members on the website, and also as an encouragement to others to join the Five Plus project.

Anton and I are totally committed to the long-term sustainability of this project, but we cannot allow it to stagnate and will continue to try to recruit new members. Once more, however, we invite each of you to let others know about the project, and to encourage them to take the pledge.

This year promises to be tougher for most of us than was 2015: it is precisely in such circumstances that our philanthropy will have an even more emphatic effect on those living daily in dire poverty. We thank you so much for being part of Five Plus, and urge you once again to assist us in increasing our membership.

Yours sincerely

Hugh Corder

Cape Town

12 January 2016