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Can we go back to Ubuntu?

04 April 2013, 10:00

My grandfather once related a story to me. It was of a man in the late 70’s who, in one wintery night, was mugged and stripped of his clothes. As he was fleeing the thugs who not only robbed him of all his belongings, but also of his dignity, he plunged into our kitchen and found my family warming themselves in my grandmother’s Elis Deluxe coal stove. The naked figure, visibly shaking, asked that they pray and led the intersession.

In the midst of the shock and confusion my grandfather organized clothes for the stranger whilst grandma offered him a warm cup of soup. After hearing of his ordeal they asked him to stay until the morning, however he insisted he needed to be home with his children and he bade them farewell.

What prompted them to help a total stranger and show compassion to someone whose path would never again cross theirs? Ubuntu is what drove them. But what is Ubuntu? Archbishop-Emeritus Mpilo Tutu attempted to define this great African principle. He says: “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

From the above definition we can conclude that Ubuntu is a way of life, a universal truth. The cardinal spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in the Nguni saying umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Kevin Chaplin says of Ubuntu, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirms and respects others, does not feel threatened by others’ strengths or abilities, because he or she recognises that we all belong to a greater whole.” 

So in a society governed by this great principle, order, respect, helpfulness, caring, community, care, peace unselfishness. There would be no violence perpetrated by one human being to another. “A growing rift between new structures and traditional values has seen the erosion of the spirit of Ubuntu, and made it difficult for people to interact openly in certain instances,” observes Chaplin, “If the concept of Ubuntu is consciously harnessed, it has the power to bring about increased harmony within society, promoting a new patriotism among the people of its nation. Ubuntu calls for unity and mutual co-operation among people who live in a particular area with honesty and reliability being important.”

However we are a complete opposite of the above as a society. South Africa is one of the most violent societies in the world. Statistics for the year ended April 2012 revealed there were 15 609 murders last year, which equates to about 43 murders a day. On average one woman is raped every 36 seconds. Our society has a scant disregard for its children, who suffer at the hands of beasts to whom their care is entrusted in! Under Ubuntu children are never orphans since the roles of mother and father are by definition not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with Ubuntu will never allow any child around them to be an orphan. Hence the Malawian people say Mwana wa mnzako ngwako yemwe- your neighbor's child is your own,

 An advert recently aired on television shows men wearing boxing gloves and concludes with the disturbing words “face it domestic violence is South Africa’s most popular sport!”

To what can we attribute our violent nature as society? Oh well the answer can be found in another popular African expression Ubunja! Ubunja is as far from Ubuntu as is the North from the South Pole! Any act that contradicts and contravenes the principles of Ubuntu is ubunja! The high levels of violence, rape, domestic abuse, child molestation are all reflective of how much the spirit of Ubunja is dominating our society. Cry the beloved South Africa.

In 2009 I was in Pretoria and some idiots forced their entry into my room and took whatever meager money I had. Luckily I was not hurt but the trauma of being held at ransom in the middle of the night still lingers in my mind. These were arch-pioneers of the spirit of ubunja at work. Whereas Ubuntu places an intrinsic value in a human being ubunja counters that. Ubuntu embraces diversity and difference of opinion and seeks to achieve mutual consensus at least, ubunja is xenophobic, non-tolerant and tramples on the right and dignity of others.

For me Ubuntu seems to be the better of the two spirits… Why can’t we be more human and be like Tutu says “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.”

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