May 15

Thirty Years of Nation Building Through The Spirit Foundation

An article by Ian Kilbride, published on 15 May 2024.

I write this while reflecting on that memorable autumn day in Pretoria on 10 May 1994 when Nelson Mandela held aloft the hand of his former oppressor F.W. De Klerk, on the steps of the Union Buildings amphitheatre. It was a moment of high drama that captured our hearts and imagination, but also captivated the world.

Now a global statesman, rather than the world’s most famous political prisoner, the imposing, charismatic, redoubtable, pugilist that is Mandela, understood fully the enormous symbolic significance of his gesture. Holding the hand of the dour, conservative leader of the dying National Party, Mandela not only reassured his political adversary of his place in the body politic, but assuaged the fears of millions of others in South Africa.

Of course, this was a moment in time and De Klerk would soon take his National Party out of the government of national unity and Madiba left government in 1999 after serving one term as President. It’s clear that Mandela and De Klerk enjoyed little personal chemistry, but were both political pragmatists who recognised the need for uncomfortable compromise as a foundation for stability, governance and even nation building.

Today, we seem to have lost sight of these imperatives. We are talking at and past each other. We have little mutual tolerance, and seem driven and riven by anger, frustration and disappointment. Indeed, we are a country in dire need of nation building. But I don’t think this is going to come from the top this time. In fact, the elusive search for party political leadership to take South Africa into the new promised land is myopic and ultimately an abrogation of our own rights and duties as citizens.

Rather, I would argue that nation building and the future of our country has to be built collectively by people of good will from below. This is a lifelong project for which we are all responsible, but from which we will all benefit.

Is this just idealised wishful thinking? Absolutely not! My belief is grounded in my personal experiences in establishing, growing and indeed benefiting from the work and achievements of the Spirit Foundation over its 30-year history.

Like all good things, the Spirit Foundation started with a good idea. In a sense, the founding impetus for the Foundation came from my own relatively modest working class background and my desire to plough back and to pay forward for the wonderful opportunities afforded me by coming to Africa and Cape Town in particular. I was convinced then and remain even more so now, that a good quality education is the absolute bedrock of success. Equally, I remain convinced that if we provide enough opportunities for our youth to enjoy quality and rounded education, then we are investing not only in young people, but actually in our own future and that of our country.

Thirty years after founding the Spirit Foundation, we have helped educate young people who have gone on to become clinicians, lawyers, academics, scientists, engineers, teachers and professional sportspeople (as well as becoming good Mums and Dads). But more than this, the Foundation has contributed to a new generation of well-rounded young South Africans committed to building a better future for themselves and their families. In my view, this is true ‘nation building from below’.

Not satisfied with this, the Spirit Foundation also launched a host of community upliftment programmes. Working with brilliant partners, we have helped visually impaired and hearing-impaired people from disadvantaged communities to lead more fulfilling lives through our assistance and interventions.

I am personally touched and gratified every time I attend one of our table cricket festivals we arrange with the Lords Taverners Association (SA). The look of sheer joy, excitement and sporting achievement on the faces of the disabled young players is irreplaceable.

I find these programmes particularly rewarding as we cannot build a nation by excluding the marginal from the rich tapestry of life. As Madiba noted in one of his memorable, epic quotes, “A nation should not be judged on how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Looking back on my own particular odyssey, one of the attractions drawing me to the African continent was its wildlife. Over time this love of our country’s biodiversity has only grown as I realise how interdependent we are on sustaining our collective ecosystem.

In this regard, I am deeply worried by the threat of extinction faced by some of our iconic species such as the rhino and so the Spirit Foundation became intensively engaged in the conservation of orphaned and endangered rhino. Again, the Foundation has followed the model of working with the best partners to achieve our goals, including partnering with the world’s most successful rhino orphanage and supporting wildlife vets.

So, as I look back on the three decades of freedom and democracy delivered by Madiba and yes, F.W. De Klerk, together with so many other democrats, I reiterate my personal commitment and that of the Spirit Foundation to making South Africa a better country for all, one day at a time.