Raggers versus radicals: Who prevailed?

by KARIM F HIRJI

IMAGE/This is Africa

Philanthropy, of various forms and origin, occupies a central, well-accepted position in the nations of Africa today. Invoking an historic confrontation between the supporters and opponents of Rag Day at the University of Dar es Salaam, this article presents a radical critique of such philanthropy. Though it occurred in 1968, the contrasting attitudes towards charity it depicts are of primary importance for the realisation of genuine social and economic progress in Africa today.

Philanthropy

Aid (philanthropy, foreign aid, charity) dominates life in Africa. All aspects of society are penetrated by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) culture. Numbering in the hundreds, these groups deal with a myriad of causes ranging from supporting street and disabled children, assisting persons with HIV infection, empowering women and girls, improving education and health services, giving free legal service to the poor, supporting marginalised communities, and providing health education to promoting civil rights and media freedom. 

The existence of NGOs is seen as a natural state of affairs. In these days of high unemployment, young people, especially university graduates, are keen to land a job with an NGO. University professors and other experts yearn for consultancy assignments with them, as they need little effort and are quite lucrative. One takes part in the activities of this or that NGO not because one believes in the cause but because of the benefits it confers. The NGOs, which function in a fragmented manner, get their funds mostly from Western nations, United Nations agencies, international organisations and individual donations. In addition, most African nations are highly dependent on external funding in the form of grants and soft loans as well as foreign investments.

On the domestic front, fund raising activities for schools, health clinics, disabled children, people with Albinism, people affected by natural disasters and a host of other causes occur on a regular basis. Newspapers regularly feature stories of politicians and ministers soliciting donations for schools; banks, mining companies and other firms building classrooms and donating educational supplies; religious bodies urging their followers to cater for the needy on special occasions; wealthy individuals visiting shelters for people with special needs; office workers participating in fund raising walks to help children with disabilities, and so on. 

Those who are better off should assist those who have been left behind to ensure that the benefits of economic progress are shared among all members of society, locally and globally. This spirit, which pervades these charitable activities, is commonly accepted by the providers and recipients, and permeates our national fabric, internally and at the international level. I call it the humanitarian spirit.

Yet, others disapprove. Conservatives proclaim that regular assistance to the poor and needy, especially by state bodies, only makes things worse. The poor have been left behind because they avoid hard work and sacrifice. Automatic handouts make them lazier and drive them towards anti-social conduct. 

The progressives, for their part, declare that the poor need jobs and investments, and provision of the right kind of training to meet the challenges of modern life, not just charity, public or private. On the international front, they say that aid should be supplanted by trade and investments from abroad. That is the only way to raise living standards in the poor nations.

There is, however, a fourth spirit towards charity, which I denote the radical spirit, which differs in a critical manner from these three spirits. But it is now largely forgotten, in Africa as elsewhere, even though it had begun to gain prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. 

The aim of this article is to illuminate the nature of the radical critique of philanthropy through an extended discussion of an event that occurred in 1968 at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I hold that it is only the radical approach and not any of the other three that can lift Africa and its people out of the state of underdevelopment and mass poverty. And this event from history shows how it was manifested in concrete terms. 

Rag Day

On this Saturday, the 9th of November 1968, a cool breeze blows on the hilly campus of the University College, Dar es Salaam. With no lectures today, the place remains sleepy. Though, there is a major exception: some 300 students, nearly a quarter of the student body, are wide-awake by 6 am and stand at the cafeteria door as it opens for breakfast. From their attire and demeanour, it is apparent that they do not form a unified group. The majority have put on torn or funny looking clothes while those in a smaller sub-group, about a tenth of the total, are dressed as students here usually do. The two groups also have contrasting intentions. The former are set to embark on a festive, seemingly virtuous course of action while the latter have a plan to sabotage, in a decisive way, these festivities.

I refer to Rag Day, by now an established and much anticipated annual event at this campus. It is a day set aside for the students to raise funds for a worthy charitable cause. They do so by marching through city streets, a tin in hand, to solicit donations from passers-by and merchants. Dressed in tattered clothing or clownish costumes, they shout, sing, bang their tin cans, dance here and there, as they beg for money. It is for a good cause, they say. And they have official sanction, from the city offices and the university administration. The latter also provides the vehicles that transport them to and from the city centre. 

Before examining what transpired at this campus on that fateful day, let us first look at the general history of Rag Day. 

Origin and essence  

The wiki-dictionary, (en.wiktionary.org), defines Rag Day as a day on which “university students do silly things for charity.” It appears to have originated in England in the later part of the 19th century. The name stems not so much from the rags adorned by the students but by their tendency to rag (hassle, pester) members of the public in the process of eliciting money from them. 

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