South Africa swaps bling for charity on Mandela day

Middle-classes will mark the former president's 93rd birthday today by doing voluntary work. Alex Duval Smith reports

Breaking with their image of favouring bling over benevolence, thousands of middle-class South Africans are today expected to mark Nelson Mandela's 93rd birthday by heeding a call to spend an hour doing voluntary work.

Mandela Day was proclaimed for 18 July – the country's first post-apartheid president – by the United Nations in 2009 when the charitable foundation that bears his name came up with the idea of asking South Africans to devote 67 minutes of their day – one for each year the former president sacrificed to his country – to doing good works.

Through lack of organisation the event began slowly. But now in its third year, Mandela Day has gathered such momentum that volunteers at an orphanage in a township near Cape Town actually ran out of things to do. "I am completely overwhelmed," said Odwa Noah, a 35-year-old self-employed architect, organising volunteers for a group called Cheesekids for Humanity.

Click here for Nelson Mandela: A Life in Pictures

Cheesekids, founded in 2008 by 31-year-old Shaka Sisulu, the grandson of anti-apartheid heroes Walter and Albertina Sisulu, aims to kill the image that up-and-coming South Africans only care for designer labels and alloy wheels on cars.

For this year's Mandela Day, Cheesekids aims to triple its intake of volunteers to nearly 7,000 in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban where worthy causes have been found that need hands-on work.

The group organises meeting places, transport, sponsored green T-shirts and tools and uses radio stations and social networks to spread the word. As Mr Mandela turns 93, gardens will be dug, soup kitchens set up and clothes distributed.

In an interview last week with City Press, Mr Sisulu said: "Privileged South Africans do not only have a responsibility to tackle the country's problems pragmatically, by throwing money at them. They also have a deep yearning to contribute beyond paying tax and going to the polls. Cheesekids allows them to express this desire and develop personally."

Mr Noah, who went to school with Mr Sisulu and still lives in the Cape township of Langa, explained: "We grew up in the townships and are lucky enough to have become professionals. Cheesekids is township slang. Cheese means money. Because of where we come from, we are best-placed to initiate change and we can also be role models because that's what is lacking amid all the negative temptations in townships."

The dynamic and apolitical network stands in sharp contrast to the better-known "black diamonds" who have given middle-class South Africans a bad name. "They are a completely different group of people," said Mr Noah.

South African celebrity magazines regularly run features about "black diamonds" – often offspring of top politicians and others who have advanced through ruling party connections. At their parties, Johnny Walker Black Label is swilled by men in sharp suits and sushi is served on naked women's bodies.

African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema is often linked to the "black diamond" set. Yesterday, as Cheesekids around the country were rolling up their sleeves, the opposition Democratic Alliance called for the tax authorities to audit Mr Malema's finances, after press reports that he was building a 16m rand (£1.4m) mansion in Sandown, Johannesburg.

Some of the Cheesekids supporters who volunteered at Baphumelele orphanage in Khayelitsha yesterday were white and grew up in relative privilege. But Alan Hammond, a 30-year-old IT technician, said Mr Mandela had liberated whites, too. "He gave us all freedom, free enterprise and the right to work together to build a nation. He inspires different things in different people but he is definitely an inspiration," said a sweaty Hammond who by 10am was completing his second 67-minute shift, scraping down a rusty shipping container with the back of a spade.

By his side, Jomo Oliphant, a 33-year-old sales manager for a tobacco company, was covered in dust after moving bricks for two hours. "It is not glamorous work but that does not matter. Mandela Day is a very African thing. It is about doing something good for other people. That's all that matters."

Namibian business administration student Violette Mureka, 26, was rubbing down the container with sandpaper. "Mandela is a hero. His life is an example to us. I have joined Cheesekids because I feel the need to be part of changing life for the better."

Orphanage founder Rose Mashale looked on in confident wonderment as the green-shirted Cheesekids brigade transformed the rusty beige container into a dazzling stripy classroom in the space of three hours. Across the road, other volunteers were repairing toys, fixing a broken jungle gym, and washing and folding donated clothes.

Mrs Mashale, an ex-kindergarten teacher, began the Baphumelele orphanage in her home 11 years ago after she discovered that one of the children in her charge had no home to go to. Baphumelele occupies a dozen buildings in her street and is home to 100 children. "Everything here is the result of volunteer work," she said.

When Mr Noah rushed to her side in a panic and announced that a third busload of volunteers had just left Cape Town and he was running out of jobs for them to do, Mrs Mashale was unruffled. "Let them play with the children. It will do everyone the world of good."

Nelson Mandela is set to spend the day at home in Johannesburg with family and friends. There will be none of the choirs or processions of well-wishers that have descended on his home in previous years.

"He has recovered from the health problems he had last year but he wants a quiet day," said Sello Hatang, a spokesman for the Nelson Mandela Foundation.