Vote for South Africa

07/22/2010 03:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the wall behind my desk, in an oblong, reddish metal frame, is an actual ballot from the first free election in South Africa, 1994.

south africa free election

In 1948, 46 painful years earlier, South Africans voted for the country's infamous apartheid policy, a government-enforced system of racial separation and degradation. By every possible standard, the policy was evil, mean and stupid.

In contrast, in the very same year, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ending racial segregation in the United States military. Government policy and elections matter.

As apartheid died in 1994, Shared Interest was birthed. Operating today from humble offices on a noisy New York side street, Shared Interest CEO Donna Katzin, a Founding Delegate of the Opportunity Collaboration, carries forward the pragmatic realism which ended apartheid politically, if not economically.

Shared Interest's founders knew then -- and know now -- that to defeat apartheid was one thing, but to be for economic justice quite another. Sixteen years into its work, Shared Interest is uniquely, purposely and smartly focused on a single nation's economic development.

The scars of apartheid are still agonizingly visible. While South Africa's per capita GDP is one of the 50 best in the world, the income inequality is the third worst (after Brazil and India).

Here's the problem: For any number of reasons -- some real, some racist and some imaginary -- local South African banks don't do much business in black townships and villages. Their lost business opportunity puts an entire nation's future at risk.

Here's the solution: The Thembani Fund (in Zulu, to "give hope and encouragement"), co-founded by Shared Interest, provides local South African banks with financial guarantees to reduce their perception risk. Not only that, Thembani spends days and weeks identifying creditworthy local economic development programs and projects, helping prepare bank loan applications, negotiating the terms and bringing home the bacon (or in local context I should say "bringing home the braai," South Africa's world famous barbeque).

Here's the result: Since 1996, guarantees arranged by Thembani have unlocked roughly 15 million in credit for the country's lowest income communities. The investment has meant creditworthy loans to micro-entrepreneurs to start businesses, emerging contractors to build low-cost housing and farmers to grow food. One out of every twenty low-income, black South Africans -- nearly 2 million people -- have benefited.

Here's your part: The capital needed to back Thembani guarantees comes from overseas investors, like you and me. Commit a minimum of $3,000 dollars for three or more years and you earn interest on your principal while your money backs a mushroom farm, a farm cooperative, a low-income housing development, a commercial trout pond, or a micro-business loan. The bottom line: Shared Interest has created more than 80,000 new small businesses, 1.6 million jobs and over 100,000 safe, affordable homes.

When apartheid ended, South Africans of color stood in line for as many as 12 hours to vote. Now you can vote for South Africa in minutes.

A clear-eyed commitment to both economic and political opportunity remains the "shared interest" of us all.