How to Spread it: Paul Harris

2013-09-08 14:00

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For some South Africans, ours is a nation ever on the precipice. They can hardly find anything of value to say about it. These people exasperate FirstRand Bank founder Paul Harris.

Yet it is this sense of exasperation and awareness of the hurdles that the nation has had to clear that galvanises Harris to do his best to dispel aspersions about South Africa.

He doesn’t just say so at dinner tables, but has committed his time and money to uplifting communities and spreading the message that contrary to some false opinions given by expatriates, South Africa is actually on the cusp of great things.

Harris is chairperson of the board of trustees of Penryn College and its teacher-outreach programme, the Penreach Whole School Development Programme. He is founder and chairperson of trustees of the Shalamuka Foundation, an endowment fund formed in 2006 to raise sustainable funding for Penreach.

The 64-year-old is also founder of the Click Foundation, which is committed to researching, collaborating and experimenting with new ideas for modern learning, using technology and funding, and supporting and incubating innovative projects that are scalable.

It was, therefore, no great wonder that a letter Harris sent to a friend in Australia about South Africa being alive with possibilities went viral.

In the letter, he wrote: “Sad as it is, it is true that the South African diaspora has a largely negative influence on confidence in South Africa. It would not be a problem if their fretting about how long we will last before we go over the cliff was merely a reflection of their concern for us, their friends and family.

“The problem is that it does impact foreign investment, which is important for economic growth. A person that is thinking of coming to visit or investing is often put off by listening wide-eyed at the stories of people who have gapped it. For as long as I can remember, there have always been people who think SA has five years left ... No change from when I was at school in the sixties. The five years went down to a few months at times in the eighties!

“But it seems the people who are the most worried live far from the cliff in places like Toronto, Auckland, London and other wet and cold places. Also from St Ives and Rose Bay in Sydney, Dallas and Europe and other ’safe places’ that are in the grips of the Global Financial Crisis, which by the way is quite scary. Many

of them have survived decades of rolling ‘five years left’ since they left South Africa. So maybe they will be right one day!”

Why do you do what you do?

To use my experience, skills and financial resources to contribute to building a better South Africa.

Was there an event/individual that sparked this need to be involved? If so, what is it?

It is the duty of all citizens who care to contribute where they can.

What has philanthropy given back to you? What has it taught you?

There are amazing positive people out there who have their hearts in the right place. We can all contribute to helping them achieve their objectives. It is also very rewarding and humbling.

If you could do more or get someone else to, what would you do or get them to do?

Do what you do best to help others. Use your skills and experience, especially businesspeople.

What is the aim of the work you do?

To improve the lot of others less fortunate. To inspire and set an example of what can be done.

What philanthropic role, if any, do you see for established businessmen such as yourself?

Giving of yourself, your time and energy is more important than only giving money. In the information age, huge companies have been built in a matter of a few years, so why can’t social entrepreneurs solve big social problems in new and innovative ways. I find this incredibly exciting and stimulating. I wish I was 30 years younger.

Is there a role for the state to play (regulatory or fiscal policy)?

Recognise that there are businesspeople doing amazing things without demanding reward. They are the solution, not the problem.

How would you measure the impact of your role?

By the amount of people inspired to get off their butts and make a contribution, rather than complaining.

» This series was developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust

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