Book review – Ubuntu at the end of the rainbow

2014-04-20 15:00

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The process of preparing Thinking Africa: A Report on Ubuntu for publication commenced in the week that marked the first commemoration of the Marikana massacre.

Though the place and meaning of this event in a future South African historiography will remain hotly contested, one thing is abundantly clear: two decades later, the ANC’s claim to have founded the new South Africa on the nomos (spirit of law) of an extraordinary humanism has bottomed out.

After Marikana, no such claim can plausibly be made or sustained.

Just as its so-called human rights-inspired foreign policy revealed itself as myth soon after it was named as such, any claim by the ANC government to have founded our democratic politico-juridical order on the idea of a shared humanity will, and indeed must, in future be met with derision.

For this reason alone, it would be the most obvious thing in the world to denote and dismiss, or perhaps embrace, this as the dawn of our “posthumanist” present, to abandon talk of ubuntu altogether, to dismiss ubuntu as historical artifact or as

a passing infatuation of an already exhausted nationalism.

In that case, a report on the state of ubuntu would amount to no more than a memorial to a history just past – a history that was betrayed. This is testament to a lasting traumatic melancholy that will do

no more than make visible, through its very engagement with the topic, the absence of ubuntu in the post-colony – a sign of the absence of a shared humanity.

But from another more resilient perspective, it seems what has passed is not the possibility of a humanist nomos per se as much as its conception in the narrow nationalist terms of an African nomos, one that was always driven less by a concern with our shared humanity than with the violent politics of identity claims.

Historically, critiques of ubuntu were always articulated within the confines of a nationalist matrix: a binary juxtaposing of the old South Africa against the new South Africa, of apartheid against democracy, of Eurocentrism against Africanity.

Within this matrix, the claims of those who posited ubuntu as a founding value of a new politico-juridical order were contested by antinationalists who saw in such claims nothing but the vacuous identitarian claims of a bourgeois politics largely unconcerned with mobilising the radically expansive understanding of justice implicit in ubuntu.

This is to say the problem was never with ubuntu as it was with the politics of ubuntu.

In short – the violent reduction of humanism to the logic of identity politics.

If, for nationalists, ubuntu was always simply present as the founding nomos of a potentially humanist order, it was only ever considered either as vacuous by those who trivialised its potential, or as absent by those who could see no need to found a politico-juridical order on anything other than liberal constitutionalism.

In retrospect, it was to be expected that this nationalist matrix, inspired as it was by the transition as our “highest moment”, should have delivered us to this posthumanist moment of spiritual darkness and idiocy.

Marikana was an apocalyptic moment (apocalypse: from the Greek “unveiling”) precisely because it revealed with incontestable clarity the horror of a politico-juridical order that had come adrift from the “highest moment” of its founding promise.

Marikana is a sign of the drift of political will, of a politico-juridical order that has lost its moorings, excluded from the very promisorial structure that would make Marikana a political event.

There can be few experiences as horrifying as this collective sense of being adrift from the origin. Implicit in the founding is always a sense of purpose, direction and intent immemorially captured by the claim “we the people?...” commit to this, that and the other.

For a society to find itself severed from and, as a consequence, adrift from its founding, amounts to recognising the horror of no longer existing with a sense of purpose premised on a founding intent.

Existence is reduced to the random outcome of the calculation of fleeting interests.

Of course, there is a real sense in which the political is always precisely such a calculation, but what keeps political orders from imploding under the weight of randomness has always been a conception of itself as a lasting iteration of the founding intent, a determination to remain anchored to the sense of purpose that first unified the collective as “we”.

But a different response to the present is possible, one that will have to proceed from a temporary suspension of the nationalist matrix and all the dead-end questions resulting from it.

To reposition ubuntu in the more cosmopolitan terms of a critical humanism that must always remain irreducible to the politics of the day, a project that has to return, in order to retrace, the founding claim that a politics premised on shared humanity is, after all, perhaps, possible.

Such an endeavour will demand of us nothing less than a return to the origin that ushered in our contemporary, post-colonial discourse on ubuntu – no longer in the narrow binary terms of the nationalist matrix but in more universal terms.

If ubuntu is to be reinvented, it is to the inescapable ambivalence of the founding we have to return in order to appropriate it as a founding trope that was always necessarily going to be both present and absent.

This is an edited extract from Leonhard Praeg’s Thinking Africa: A Report on Ubuntu

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