Rotarians beat Lady Gaga hands down

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

I’ve always been fascinated by what exactly it is that makes anyone want to act to help anyone else.

It’s probably because I’ve never believed in the kindness of the collective. As South Africans, many of us get starry eyed about the notion of Ubuntu as a historical African phenomenon rooted in entire communities. I believe nothing of the sort.

The man I affectionately refer to as The Arch, Mpilo Desmond Tutu, proffered that “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

By Tutu’s definition, Ubuntu exists, absolutely, but it is the preserve of individuals, not groups.

Think about this: Only two percent of the human population can be called leaders in the measurable sense that it is their actions that impact upon the rest of humanity.

In their ranks, we include innovators, scientists, politicians, dictators, and yes, Rotarians. There are 1,2 million Rotarians around the world but that number comprises point zero two percent of the world’s population.

To put this in perspective, Lady Gaga has 26 million followers on twitter.

Yes, there are other service organisations too, but very few compete with Rotary in numbers and certainly none competes in terms of influence.

So collectively, there are very few of us who are actively engaged in service.

This is not a new problem.

Jesus Christ told the tale of a man who was mugged, robbed, wounded, and left for dead. Members of his community walked by but ignored him. It took a man from outside, a Samaritan, to give the victim medical care as well as transport to a safe haven.

It was only two thousand years later that we as a species began to seriously examine the reasons for what scientists today call the Good Samaritan effect: what it is that makes some people prone to helping when clearly such behaviour is not the norm.

The first studies of such pro-social behaviour were conducted in 1968. It was quite cunning: subjects were put into groups of 2, 3, or 6. One member in each group then faked a seizure.

The scientists then measured whether people helped, and if so, how long would it take them to help.

To their surprise, they discovered that the more people there were in a group, the less likely they were to help, and the longer they took to help (if they did).

Studies have confirmed that pro-social people have inherent qualities that unite us: We have a higher internal locus of control, a stronger belief in a “just world”, we feel more socially responsible, we have higher empathy in self-concept, and we are less egocentric.

In other words, it comes down to whether you believe your glass is half full or half empty. And that inherent desire to change the world for the better is far more important than the differences that might otherwise divide us.

I’m deeply honoured to have been selected by my fellow Rotarians to serve as club 23975 in district 9400, Morningside president for the next year after such a short period in this wonderful organisation.

I say “serve” because one cannot command cooperation in Rotary. I have been in employment for 32 years, nearly all of that time in a managerial capacity.

When employees do not do what’s required, one simply fires them. But there is no hiring and firing in Rotary. We are all here as volunteers, and indeed, as peers. The extent to which we are successful in our projects depends on our ability to persuade our fellow Rotarians to believe in our path.

:: This week’s column was part of an address given by Kanthan Pillay on Sunday at his inauguration as president for the Rotary club 23975 in district 9400, Morningside.