OH Watch Blog: updates to residents


Making a difference is your choice

(This is an edited version of Mixael de Kok’s speech to the regional AGMs of PRISA. Mixael de Kok was a National President of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa.)

Volunteerism has an enormous impact on the way a society progresses. While most people don’t have as much time to devote to worthy causes these days, volunteering benefits the volunteers just as much as the benefactors.

In my research on the subject of volunteerism, I picked up this little Russian joke:
Policeman to drunk: “Tell us, what forces you to drink vodka every day?”
Drunk: “Nothing. I’m a volunteer.”

And in my search, I found this valuable quote by the legendary Hollywood sex symbol, Mae West: “Volunteer activities can foster enormous leadership skills. The non-professional volunteer world is a laboratory for self-realisation.”
It has always been accepted that the heart of a volunteer is not measured in size, but by the depth of the commitment to make a difference in the lives of others. Such words are noble and described a reality of long ago when the ancient Greeks held that “A civilisation flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit.”

What I am going to propose is that volunteerism – or the failure of volunteerism, coupled with a lack of commitment – is the very thing that has been slowly eroding civil society the world over: Going back into history one finds that it is volunteerism that has been the driving force behind societal evolution. And it is volunteerism that, after the ravages of the industrial revolution, created civil society in the West.
In fact, volunteering has been shown to be the ultimate exercise in democracy. In elections you vote. But when you volunteer; you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

Even Lord Spencer and Andrew Carnegie knew that corporates and skilled people were needed to man certain societal structures in order to make civil interaction possible. Early on they identified the broadest – and maybe the most meaningful – definition of volunteering: Doing more than you have to because you want to in a cause you consider good.

In modern history we observe three distinct phases of volunteerism:
▪ There is the start-up phase in volunteerism, which dates from the industrial revolution to World War 2;
▪ Then there is the Golden Age of volunteerism, which is the post-war period until the 1980s; and
▪ The decline of volunteerism, between the 1990s and now, where it is non-existent.

The Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher alliance is what destroyed volunteerism. The birth of fundamentalist capitalism obliterated the phrase: “Put yourself in some-one’s shoes, because in this contemporary, fast-paced life, we are, most of the time, forced to be self-centred. We have forgotten to stop for a moment and give our time to others and, in the process, the true meaning of empathy is lost.
In the process of destroying the Kensyan economic models, we were promised riches as never seen before and riches trickling down to all. The understanding was that if we were to lift all controls on the free market, everyone would benefit. But the free market is a concept, not a human being. And abstract concepts do not have consciences.
We have ended up in a society in which we have created three times the wealth of ever before, but it is concentrated in far fewer hands. At the same time poverty bases have increased by 500% and the only thing to trickle down from “Reagonomics” has been cuts in social spending – and all but the total destruction of the trade-union movement. We now have moved into the Era of the 21st Century Slavery.

What is important to know is that at the beginning of the 1980s a 10% return on investment was accepted as fair. Nowadays, we are talking of 33% to 40% annual returns on investments before the “shareholders” are marginally satisfied.
The net result is that long-term planning has gone out the door. Management’s expertise is focused on quarterly results and short-term decision-making.
It is almost as if the Armageddon-thinking of the US now also pervades the international community. Is the expectation really that the end is imminent and that we should make hay while the earth still rotates?

In Singapore they say: “Life is never so busy that there is no time to serve.”
But that is in Singapore. The reality is that people in the Western-orientated countries are pressed like never before. For a Westerner to uphold the lifestyle of the early 1980s we now have to work 400% more.
Consequently, companies can no longer afford to do volunteer work and individuals simply do not have the time to donate to good causes. What everyone has forgotten is that it is easy to make a buck but a lot tougher to make a difference.
Financier George Soros and also Noreena Herz, the world’s foremost political economist, have cautioned the world about the demise of civil society and democracy in our quest for greater profit.

When turning my gaze to South Africa today I cannot but help to see – added to the vagaries of a free-market economy in the West – that, at an alarming rate, we are also destroying civil society here. Furthermore, there are two destructive cultures being fostered in our midst and nobody seems to be alarmed or concerned.

The first is a culture of unquestioned incompetence and non-delivery, which in itself, is becoming almost a kind of state religion. It is both a non-delivery of basic rights and human rights. And from this culture of incompetence and non-delivery grows a culture of dissatisfaction. It is a culture in which we see little tolerance, a great deal of aggression and unchecked greed. It is defined in the question: what is in it for me?

The tragedy is that today in South Africa we cannot expect any charitable acts and, least of all, volunteerism. The reality we have to face is that volunteerism - or lack thereof – is having an enormous impact on how our society progresses.
The Chinese have a proverb that states: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”
You should remember that it is better to serve than to be served. It is one of the beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “He who does nothing for others does nothing for himself,” to which we can add the voice of Martin Luther King who said: “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”
Being a man or a woman is a matter of birth. Being a man or a woman who makes a difference is a matter of choice. No person was ever honoured for what he or she received. Honour is given by what he or she gives.
Winston Churchill said: “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.”

Throughout your life, there is a voice only you can hear; a voice which mythologists label “the call”… a call to the value of your life. It is the choice of risk and individual bliss over the known and secure. You may choose not to hear your spirit. You may prefer to build a life within the compound, to avoid risk. It is possible to find happiness within a familiar box, a life of comfort and control.
Or you may choose to be open to new experiences, to leave the limits of your conditioning, to hear the call. Then you must act. If you never hear it, perhaps nothing is lost. If you hear it and ignore it, your life is lost.

And I don’t know what your individual destinies will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. It is true that we shall pass through this world but once.

I leave you with the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

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