Transcript of Keynote Address by Frank Kilbourn
November 15, 2019

I was fortunate to grow up on a cattle and maize farm in the rural Northwest province, far away from bright city lights and big business. In such a community with a huge inherent risk and consequent focus on survival, I encountered philanthropy at an early age, even though the term itself was foreign to me. When I was about 10 years old, I noticed the cornerstone of our small school building, which housed between 50 to 60 thousand kids from grade one to grade seven laid by my maternal grandfather. That was not of much importance to me, but I became curious when I saw a similar thing at the church and the community hall. I asked my mother why this was the case and whether there was a secret in our family that I actually had a politician for a grandfather. She replied, no, it was not of the sort. He did these things because he cared and believed that he had a duty to make a difference in the way we live.


It was only when I went to university and discovered that the Rudman Study Trust funded part of my studies that he created for his descendants 30 years ago, that I started delving deeply into this person. I learned that he was a remarkable, resourceful, and enterprising man who rose from humble beginnings to become a legend in our region in his time. His philanthropic acts went far beyond our little settlement. As someone who experienced the ravages of the Anglo-War and had to deal with the destruction of the Scorched Earth Policy that was brought on farming communities and left thousands impoverished and incapable of taking care of themselves. Even more so, after the Great Drought and Depression in the 1930s. He was committed to doing everything he could to improve the lives of those affected.


Although he was a teacher by training and a farmer by profession, he was really committed to transforming the area where he lived. He soon realised its limitations, so he thought wider. He was instrumental in organising the struggling farmers in our area into the notaries cooperatives to improve their skills and buying power. He was a co-founder of a country-wide organisation in the 1930s aimed at alleviating the deep poverty Afrikaners found themselves in at the time. He was also a co-founder of the First National Bank, sadly, not the one today, otherwise, they would give a lot more, which was aimed at providing banking services to people who were very much excluded from the formal banking sector at the time. Is it not amazing how 90 years later, we are still facing many of the same challenges across our continent?


Much of this I learned by thumbing through a better copy of the who’s who of South Africa, of somewhere in the 1930s, which I found hidden in the bookshelves of our bedroom on the farm. My father never told me any of this, and only filled in some details when I asked. But I thought it was not that special, it was just a case of someone caring for his community. That left a deep impression on me, and I resolved to do something similar if I were ever fortunate enough to do so and do it in an understated manner. This resulted in the formation of the Bright Foundation many years later, which became a shareholder of the Bright Group from its inception in the early 2000s. I realised that the tax laws, as I will touch upon later, are very unforgiving when it comes to donating money once you have made it, you better give it away before you make it. We decided to give a significant amount of the equity of our new group to the Bright Foundation when we started. So, the concept of sharing and giving away became embedded in the DNA of the group and every business we have become involved in.


Margaret Mead said, never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has. Ladies and gentlemen, life is not linear, and I learned that over and over again. Every time I think back about the trials and tribulations swings and roundabouts in some highways, bad luck, and incredible synchronicity that shaped my career and our business, I feel very fortunate and under the deep impression of our obligation to share not only the financial rewards we were entrusted with, but also the lessons we learned, and the skills and insights we developed along the way.


Much of Africa’s current successes and future potential resides in the business sector. Entrepreneurship, the efficient allocation of capital and management of human and financial capital, and the development and utilisation of technological innovation in harnessing our resources can and should drive us forward in converting the proverbial dark continent into the dry continent, no pun intended, where the future resides. This will only happen if we match business with the need to protect our environment and nurture our people. It is a sad truth. As a businessman, I have to admit that the bigger the business is the more it objectifies the resources it uses, especially the environment and the people that are not directly involved in it. The bigger the business, the more abstract the thinking. Africa needs big business with ambitious projects to transform itself into an economic powerhouse, but this carries enormous risk. Governments are the primary agents tasked with providing the legal and institutional framework within which businesses should both flourish and be contained. Unfortunately, power and greed are two gods that are both powerful on their own and become almost irresistible when combined. I want to repeat that, power and greed are two gods that are both powerful on their own and become almost irresistible when combined.


Our continent is riddled with examples of these forces in action, resulting in a disregard for the abuse of people and the environment. The only counter to greed and power is love. Philanthropy is love in action. Without philanthropy at every level, we will destroy as much, if not more than we create. In order to be an effective counterweight to these powerful forces, philanthropy needs to learn the secrets of their success and employ them in a benevolent manner. While every good deed and initiative makes a difference, philanthropic efforts need to be better coordinated, focused, and results-driven if we wish to optimize its impact and meet the very visible challenge of greed and corruption. This is not a new challenge, ladies and gentlemen. Aristotle said many centuries ago that to give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power, but to decide whom to give it to, how large, when, for what purpose, and how, is needed in every man’s power, and is not an easy matter. I think that is true.

This was amplified by James Allen Smith, who stated somewhat darkly, that the greatest harm occurs when gifts are dispersed haphazardly, without forethought or regard to their effects. Hence, I am delighted with the initiative taken to host this conference and provide a critical analysis of the state of philanthropy across the continent, its strengths and challenges, philosophical roots, ambitious funders, managers, and objectives. The better we understand who the players are and what they are driven and motivated by, what areas of innovation are being targeted or left behind and share the lessons we have learned through success and failure, the truer to our calling and successful we will be as philanthropists.


Philanthropic acts invariably do what governments are supposed to do with our tax money, but often fail because of several reasons. There are understandable reasons such as lack of income, competing priorities, limited executing capacity, etc. There are also many unforgivable ones such as the disregard for its people, corruption, and ineptitude. One would think that governments would go out of their way to create a legal regulatory framework to encourage philanthropic giving. Sadly, this is not the case in South Africa, nor to my knowledge anywhere else in Africa. In fact, my sense is that legislation in our country is determined to limit the amount of money you can give away. Everything at a modest percentage of your income will be regarded as a donation, attracting a tax of around 20%. That would be understandable if one was merely giving money away in order to reduce one’s tax, but this is clearly counterproductive when genuine philanthropy is at play.


This is significantly different to America for example, where if you donate your art collection to a museum, that amount gets deducted from tax because it is a national gift to the benefit of it all. In the end, what about tax money? If it is a national gift to the benefit of all then becomes an alternative way of taxation. No such rules exist in Africa, and this should not be a major thing that all of us in the philanthropic ecosystem should work towards, lobbying the government to have more generous rules pertaining to giving. Tax law does it to some extent in Section 18 of the Income Tax Act, which allows for the registration of public benefit organisations, which are exempt from capital gains income taxes once functional, provided that certain steep criteria are met. Anyway, it is still there and if you have made your capital as a public benefit organisation, you would only get a modest reduction in the rest of the amounts that you have given will still be subject to a 20% tax. I think that is crazy.


Very limited tax incentives also exist for the formation of entities focused on nature conservation, etc. Philosophically, this comes from the deep belief by governments all across the world, and in Africa, that they are the best custodians of good causes in their country. I believe this is naive and counterproductive. In my daily life and I am sure in yours too, I have seen an incredible number of philanthropic initiatives in action, in our household, at our school, community, and at work in our fields of interest, such as conservation and the arts. In fact, these activities provide the oxygen necessary for the functionality and survival of activities that shape and enrich our lives way beyond the scope of any governmental interventions. This should be encouraged rather than hindered by legislation. Art shares many characteristics with philanthropy. It is born out of the very best of us; our imagination, creativity, willingness to expose ourselves, concerns with the issues of the day that troubles us, and our need to express ourselves meaningfully outside the sphere of survival for profit. Both art and philanthropy transcend boundaries, countenance, language, and grace. Both are set out to transform the way we think and what we do. I believe we can judge the country by the way you treat art and artists, and I believe much the same applies to philanthropy.

At the Bright Foundation, we are annually inundated with the needs of our society, whether it be poverty, relief, education, medical emergency, etc. Although most of our available funding is to education, providing 54 scholarships for students at universities across the country this year, we carved out every year, a certain section of our income to be dedicated to support the art and nature conservation projects. It is a very clear challenge for everyone involved in philanthropic giving, where you apply your capital and what you donate to because there are many needs out there. It is very easy to get confused and ineffective. We believe that over and above recognising a very clear niche such as education, you should try and make a change in those activities or endeavors that you really love. For us, art and nature conservation are two activities that we believe in giving towards every year. Through the act of giving we become more, and the more we give, the more benefits and impact we have.