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The Selfish Humanitarian

The Selfish Humanitarian

by Daniel Sher / Images by Alistair Barnes / 19.11.2013

He’s bawling his eyes out, slumped against the bus-stop. Seven years old at most: a black child wearing an oversized Sea Point school uniform, snot running down his face. Pedestrians feign ignorance and hurry past. Privileged South Africans have mastered the art of looking the other way, deflecting personal responsibility and effectively making things someone else’s problem.

Approaching the youngster you immediately feel awkward and uncomfortable – familiar symptoms of stepping into the fire of another’s pain. “What’s wrong my friend? Are you ok? Are you lost?” He ignores you. You pat him on the back and his bawling merely intensifies. In a desperate attempt to connect, you start counselling, the way you would with an adult: “I can see you’re really unhappy right now”. He doesn’t even look up. You might as well be hunting for a gay bar in Orania.

Eventually you enlist the help of someone who speaks his language – and Xhosa. With a motherly voice she consoles the child effortlessly. The mystery of his discontent is quickly resolved: “It’s nothing” says the lady. “He just had a fight with his friends and now he has missed his bus. But there’s another one coming soon.”

The child guzzles your offering of a cool-drink and you depart with a spring in your step, basking in an aura of smug self-righteousness. Strolling nonchalantly and half expecting a semi-nude angel to descend from the heavens with heavenly song and sexual offerings, a disconcerting thought suddenly ruptures your sanctimonious bubble of self-satisfaction. Was your moment of humanitarianism motivated by a genuine desire to help the child, or were you simply trying to feel better about yourself as a person?

And that raises the broader question of whether any act of charity can remain untainted by the selfish desires of the giver. Lest we lose ourselves within this futile exercise in semantic masturbation, we should remember that what really matters is whether or not the person in question is given the assistance that they need. The motivations underlying the gesture are surely irrelevant.


But what is relevant is the division that we so readily assume between the self and other – the giver and receiver. This is an ingrained feature of our collective psychology and is a way of thinking that unnecessarily complicates the act of charity. What we need is an ‘African’ solution to a post-colonial problem. Please forgive my use of a concept that has been perpetually hijacked and clichéd: from the rhetoric of Bill Clinton and the United Nations, to American basketball teams and entrepreneurs such as Mark Shuttleworth. Ladies and gents, I give you the spiritual essence of Africa: Ubuntu.

If you’ll ignore my cynicism (this is a Mahala piece after all), you may find in Ubuntu a unique way of thinking that can help us to navigate our dilemma. Simply put, the concept of Ubuntu holds that communal identity is more important than individuality: I am what I am because of whom we all are.

From this perspective, compassion is expected of one, not as an individual, but as a member of the community. Suddenly, one’s humanitarian efforts become that much more significant. You see a crying child and you help him, not necessarily because you want to feel better about yourself; and not even because he needs comfort and reassurance. You do this because choosing to help the child means creating and sustaining your community as a place in which a youngster can expect help from a stranger if he’s ever in distress.

* Images © Alistair Barnes

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  1. Lew says:

    Well, wanting to have this ubuntu-based society where people in distress can expect help is self-interested too. If you or your child was in a similar situation would it be selfish to want to create a safe society? Yes. Selfishness is a fact of life, and I don’t think that it is wrong. Harming others intentionally or through ignorance is though. Lets talk about that. My two cents.

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  2. Andy says:

    My wife continually tries to involve me in her seemingly random “selfless” and humanitarian acts. She actually tries to get me to act on her ideas when she doesn’t have time!! She says I’m selfish and only think of myself. She is right. I refuse to endanger myself or our children or even her for that matter to help a stranger in distress. My family comes first. If I’m by myself that’s a different story. I’ve helped plenty of strangers; given them food, a ride, helped them change a flat tire, talked them down from a fight, or just to give a word of encouragement, etc. I just don’t tell people about it or even try to involve anyone else. If I see someone in need and can reasonably see a way to help while only endangering myself, I act. I solve the dilemma if I can, pat myself on the back for my good deed ( because if I’m honest with myself it does make me feel good) and immediately get on with my day usually forgetting about the whole thing! She wants to tell everyone about her experience and have them see just how unselfish she is. I happen to think that sort of behavior is so much more selfish than my own. Somebody get this do-gooder off MY SELFISH BACK!!

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