Giraffe in city street [News]It was the Scottish-US steel magnate Andrew Carnegie who once remarked: “He who dies with wealth, dies with shame.” It is a statement that became an article of faith for many conscientious businessmen who came to understand that they had a bigger role to play in society than simply running their enterprises.

By the late 19th century, Carnegie had turned his full attention to admonishing the super-rich to give a substantial amount of their wealth thoughtfully. His tract, the Gospel of Wealth, was a variation on the biblical theme: “To whom much is given, much is required.” In human form, its incarnation is Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, launched in 2010. Buffett called on the wealthy to give half of their wealth to charitable causes and helped raise the social consciousness of many wealthy individuals who were comfortable in their riches while the world burnt.

Patrice Motsepe, signatory to Buffett’s Giving Pledge, recently donated nearly $1m towards the Ebola Fund in the Republic of Guinea. A powerful gesture by an African business leader two weeks after United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lambasted global leaders for failing to contribute to the UN Ebola Fund. Many of these leaders are completely out of touch with reality and suffer a subdued sense of responsibility. As with many other global challenges, politicians take longer to agree on a common approach and have a short-term view, satisfying voters from election to election.

In the absence of forward-looking political leadership, tackling some of the major global risks requires enlightened and transformative leaders in business and the civic sphere. Such leaders, especially wealthy individuals, can tap into their resources and meet critical challenges where they arise. This does not mean that they can substitute for the role of political leaders, but that they should not act as if they do not have the power to bring about change.

It is worth highlighting that since the financial crisis in 2008, the number of billionaires in the world has more than doubled to 1,645 people, according to a new Oxfam Report ‘Even It Up’. Of these billionaires, 16 are in sub-Saharan Africa, co-existing with 358-million people living in extreme poverty. Africa’s wealthy have the power to rewrite the African narrative and alter its destiny for the better.

In SA, the type of new business leader we have is obsessed with rubbing shoulders with the political elite. You would typically find such businessmen gleefully throwing money at party fundraising events, but find them nowhere to be seen amid global challenges. Those who do anything positive tend to limit their contribution to narrowly conceived corporate social responsibility projects.

The role of business leaders in society is not just about building a positive image and nurturing relationships with stakeholders for brand value but, crucially, to catalyse positive change. Under Buffet’s Giving Pledge wealthy individuals has pledged enormous sums of money towards education, the environment, and health, many of them already known for their generosity.

In Motsepe’s case it matters that he’s an African and has made a substantial contribution towards tackling Ebola. Gestures such as these could be a role model for transformative philanthropy in Africa. In the past, Africans were known for extending a begging bowl to the West, despite the fact that Africa is resource-rich. From the provision of health infrastructure to food programmes, western donors have had to fill the social deficits in many African countries, mostly as a result of bad governance.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the African identity is defined largely by Africa’s dependence on the West. It is acts such as Motsepe’s that could illuminate a path for a new generation of African business leaders who are not just absorbed into their enterprises or obsessed with cosying up to politicians, but see greater value in tackling some of the major challenges confronting their countries today.

This article was featured in Mzukisi Qobo’s column for BDLive available here.