The Politics of Generosity

Understanding the politics of generosity

I grew up with a view that generosity is not exceptional or extraordinary. My greatest teacher of generosity was my father. From a young age, I watched how my father would give away his time, or anything else, if someone expressed a need for it. This applied to food, the time my father spared to train or mentor others, or sharing any other resources he had access to. My father’s normalising of giving was constantly reaffirmed in other parts of my upbringing. Because of my father’s example, there were things I thought perfectly normal.  For example, getting to school every day, my friends would wait for me to share my lunch with them (my father took great care to make our school sandwiches with flair). I would share whatever I had with my classmates. Whether it was sharing my pocket money or offering our house as a base for us to gather and study together; or inviting people to share a meal, all these acts of generosity felt perfectly normal. My father’s role modelling made me feel that we were the richest family in our working class neighbourhood. There seemed to always be enough for us to share with everyone. If anyone was hanging out with myself or my siblings, whatever was bought or given to us would be shared with my friends or cousins. It never occurred to me that we were ‘poor’ because there was never a sense of lack in my memory. Even those moments where we enjoyed simple things were always transformed into abundant times.

Perhaps this is nostalgia talking, but I now miss those days when things were simple, and interconnected, where our wellbeing was interdependent and where we took care of each other.  Indeed, I also saw examples where people tried to hog what they had, where they competed with others or compared people to each other, but my father’s consistent and persistent way of being and doing overshadowed these examples, and instead positioned them as exceptions rather than norms. Later, when I entered a world that was far bigger than the community I lived in (or the part of it that was strongly influenced by my father) I found the reality –  where I, as an individual, had to push to get ahead at all costs, to assert my exceptionalism, and to be an example of the ‘survival of the fittest’ – difficult to swallow. I remember when I eventually got my degree and accessed opportunities that many that I grew up with did not, I struggled with what they would now term as ‘survivors’ guilt’.

The task of processing and coming to terms with my guilt was placed on my shoulders solely and, at the time, I did not have the language or wisdom to understand and name what I was really grappling with. Over time, as I encountered and engaged with feminist politics, I found a language that critiqued this overarching ideology. I realised that my father’s foundational approach reinforced in me our interdependence and a belief that wellbeing is where one individual cannot succeed without the support, sense of connection and groundedness they get from being part of the community they belong to.

In a world where the neoliberal capitalist paradigm reinforces the individual, and shines the light on exceptionalism, those who fail to be exceptional (or even those who simply keep their heads above water in order to just keep going) have the task of dealing with their challenges in isolation (at times). Their confusion, anxiety, grief, anger, and despair, feelings of helplessness and the sense that they are not measuring up, that getting ahead is insurmountable are often kept private rather than shared and supported.

What my father was doing as an indistinguishable part of his practice was what others now term generosity. What I experienced through my father, and later replicated in the ways I live my life and my activism, is what South Africans term ubuntu, that is acting in ways that benefit the collective/community. Such acts could be as simple as helping a stranger in need or could appear in much more complex ways of relating with others.

Problematising generosity

According to the Collins dictionary, if you refer to someone’s generosity, you mean that they are generous in doing or giving more than is usual or expected. However, in the current economic paradigm, forming part of a white supremacist narrative, generosity is often portrayed as a modern, apolitical, private, middle-class ideal with those holding privilege ‘making up’ for that privilege by being a generous benefactor of those who the system treats unjustly. In this system the generosity that is amplified are the big gestures that involve moving money through initiatives that are trying to band-aid and “help” others, particularly those who are affected by unjust systems – ranging from colonialism to systemic racism to misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and more.

However, in these discourses, alternative narratives that include the everyday actions, decisions and behaviours of radical generosity are often less visibilised. Research in South Africa shows that in their everyday realities, South Africans contribute to social causes across race, age, urban and rural locations in forms that include cash; goods and time volunteered. What this highlights is that generosity is a way of being within communities that are often considered to be economically vulnerable and under-resourced. Like my father these communities do not consider generosity as an act that moves beyond themselves, but rather they see it as an act of solidarity that is based on an orientation. Surrounding collectivity. That is to say, individuals help one another in their attempts to attain collective wellbeing.

The commodification of generosity as an act of exceptionalism, which is only within the reach of those with economic, social or psychological resources, dismisses the many ways in which communities have historically co-existed and supported their shared humanity. Indeed, generosity is again narrowed down into individualising actions rather than collectivising the multiple ways in which we are connected and contribute to each other’s personal and collective wellbeing.  Hence, a political framing of generosity as solidarity recognises the interplay between power, privilege and agency as a practice of navigating systemic inequalities.  It is about seeing that we are part of something larger than ourselves, and that we are all interdependent.

From my father’s example, the micro level in which generosity lives is about sharing what you have with others in ways that go beyond the sharing of personal possessions and include skills and knowledge. At the community or collective level, it is an acknowledgement that everyone has something to give and includes a willingness to support each other to meet our needs. We saw examples of this during Covid19, when communities were able to step in and support one another when other systems failed to do so. Solidarity as opposed to generosity is a belief, a value system, a choice, and a practice. It creates inner shifts and possibilities that disrupt narratives of scarcity and sees beyond only our own experience, without taking away from our ability to sustain our own life and wellbeing. Similar to Covid19, in the case of my father I saw how, in those moments where my father was unable to do things for himself physically or materially, people would show up at our door, offering to do simple things that made a big difference in our lives. This reinforced in me the importance of reaffirming my connectedness rather than my separateness from others.

¹Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in collaboration with the Southern African Grantmakers’ Association and the National Development Agency in 2005

3 Ways to reignite solidarity (as generosity) in our lives:

#1: Listen and connect to those closest to you

The best place to start with solidarity is to connect with those closest to you. Find out more about how they are experiencing their realities and where they are struggling. Listening does not mean ‘fixing’ or ‘helping’. Sometimes just listening is a powerful act of solidarity and a generosity of time and energy. If in listening, you are then able to support through linking them to resources such as people or information; that would be a bonus.

#2: Give of yourself in ways that feel embodied

The act of giving without feeling connected reinforces separation not connection. The most profound form of generosity is our presence and embodied engagement with people wherever we are. Whatever community you are part of, start by slowing down just enough to simply show up. Then, in this space where you bring the fullness of yourself, you might find those openings and spaces where you can share knowledge, skills, or even just your time as forms of solidarity.

#3: Develop your own solidarity practice

Solidarity practice should not be in isolation but connected to the needs and values of those we are in community with. However, if you want to build a practice of solidarity, do so in a way that becomes part of how you move in the world. Such a practice could include:

  • Sharing knowledge, skills, drive and ability to grow something together
  • Sharing material resources on a regular basis
  • Give encouragement, insight, time, networks or buying power.

One’s solidarity practice should support community building and be an affirmation that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that our wellbeing is inextricably linked to others, and that only together do we stand a chance of disrupting the dominant system.