When South African traditional acapella choir Thokoza Group serenaded the toast of Shared Interest’s supporters at New York’s glamorous Gotham Hall the last thing they probably expected to hear was the sound of the assembled dignitaries, benefactors, politicians, and socialites standing-up and ululating back at them.
Such was the air of celebration at the nonprofit’s 20th anniversary gala awards dinner that honored six extraordinary individuals for their immense contributions to the people of South Africa, among them filmmaker and producer of the movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” Anant Singh, and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It’s no coincidence that Shared Interest’s anniversary coincides with the year South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy with its fifth national election — the NGO has long been invested in the future of the country, raising more than $16 million over the last two decades to support numerous agricultural and housing projects and facilitating scores of micro-lending ventures that have benefitted more than two million people.
It’s more than just charity though. The model created by Shared Interest’s executive director Donna Katzin and her colleagues practices the old adage that it better to teach a man to fish than to simply give it to him: at the core is the idea that Shared Interest’s benefactors and contributors are really investing in the people of South Africa, particularly the women. The group assists in small business development, whether it be through direct investment or by negotiating micro-financing arrangements between local banks and budding entrepreneurs, allowing the them to grow and become financially stable while improving their communities.
The key is that it’s targeted historically disadvantaged communities in South Africa, people who would normally struggle to convince the banks to grant them loans directly and who lacked the support and infrastructure to become financially self-sustaining. Shared Interest fills in those gaps, working with the communities and investors and providing the support they would need to grow successful small businesses. Investors in return will even get a small percentage back… a win-win situation for everyone. And a vital ingredient in South Africa’s future economic development.
It’s a cause the crowd at Gotham Hall believes in strongly — an assembled mix of Africans and New Yorkers that further exemplify the strong ties between the two countries. Many of the assembled dignitaries, Katzen included, were avid campaigners for the release of Nelson Mandela from jail during the country’s darker days of apartheid. Now, twenty years later they’re excited to celebrated how far the young democracy has come.
Award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault hosted the evening that recognized several leaders for their particular commitment to uplifting the lives of ordinary South Africans. Also among the honorees was philanthropist and social justice advocate (and daughter of Archbishop Tutu) Reverend Mpho Tutu, South Africa’s ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and his wife, human rights activist Rosieda Shabodien. Each lauded the goodwill and hard work of the others as well as other activists among the guests who played a significant role in helping South Africa get to where it is today, but mentioned there was a ways still to go. “South Africa will never be free until people have access to services like health and education,” said Rasool.
The show, however, was stolen by its star honoree, the inimitable Archbishop Tutu who in high spirits regaled the crowds with talk of the nonprofit’s unique contributions, while also paying homage to his friend, South Africa’s beloved former president Nelson Mandela. “The reason Madiba did not die in prison is you,” said Tutu. “Do you know you did an extraordinary thing? … You helped change the moral climate of this country.”’
And all that work is set to continue. Katzin is just getting started and hopes to at least double the number of loans and investments to the country. The evening ended with a silent fund-raiser, a push to get the assembled crème of New York’s high society to reach into their deep pockets and invest in the next twenty years of South Africa’s future. “We’re about halfway there,” says Katzin of Shared Interest goals for this project. She adds that what they achieve over the next twenty years is equally, if not more important than the last. After all, as Hunter-Gault reminds them, “we must analyze South Africa as a young country”… meaning the work to build a strong, resilient economy and ensure basic human rights for even the most disadvantaged of communities has really just started.