Are African ethics really different?

2010-10-08 00:00

THE government is thinking of setting up a special unit to deal with corruption in the public service. The late afternoon show on SAFM last week invited SMSes on the topic. I think they may have regretted asking. “Set one bunch of crooks to check on another?” was pretty much the standard and cynical­ reply.

Is South Africa, or Africa generally, more corrupt than other places­? Are there no ethics in Africa? That’s a rhetorical question — let me say with haste that I don’t see African culture as less ethical than that of Europe (think president­ Nicolas Sarkozy and the Roma people) or the United States (think George W. Bush and the Iraq war) or Asia (think Pakistan and cricket). But here, as everywhere in our changing world, ethics are in a melting pot and ethics are in trouble.

I edited a book some years back on African ethics*. A few weeks ago Karabo Kgoleng asked me to talk to her about it on her SAFM books programme. I was embarrassed. I only agreed because the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press asked me to. I had only edited the book, not written it. Why was she not interviewing my colleague Munyaradzi Felix Murove who edited a much more substantial book on the topic only last year?** At least Felix is African.

But then Felix is not South African­, but a Shona from Zim- babwe­, so maybe he’s a different kind of African? Do all Africans think the same? Is there really such a thing as African ethics, or are ethics­ in South Africa different from Nigeria or Kenya?

It’s a contested question, but yes, in broad terms, there is what seems like a generic ethical outlook in sub-Saharan Africa. Traditional African ethics place more emphasis on the community and less on the person than the traditional ethics­ of the West as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Zulu people talk of ubuntu, the idea that I am who I am because of others. In African ethics my identity and my welfare are deeply bound up with my local community. If the community suffers, I suffer with it. So if I am fortunate — if I receive money, if I have a job, if I have political power and influence — these gifts are not mine to do with as I please. I must use them for the benefit of my family and local community.

African ethics place emphasis on respect or hlonipha — respect for elders, for those in authority, for those with the gift of spiritual power­, or for those with a strong and charismatic personality. It is disrespectful to criticise, question or mock those set above me.

African ethics place emphasis on decision making by consensus. The idea that the winner takes all at the heart of a typical Western democracy is uncomfortable for many Africans­. A true leader must listen to advice, must wait patiently for the community to come to a common agreement rather than impose his or her own opinion.

It is easy to see how this works out in many aspects of South African life. Some examples:

• Former president Thabo Mbeki ruled by personal decree and not by consensus, and he was replaced by President Jacob Zuma who consistently­ seeks to hold different constituencies together, as his speeches at the recent national general council (NGC) of the ANC clearly demonstrate. Zuma is archetypically­ someone who rules by consensus.

• Disrespect towards anyone in political­ authority, so entrenched in the combative politics of a Western multi-party democracy, is distasteful to many Africans. Our own Democratic­ Alliance needs to learn this if it hopes ever to win significant African support.

• Money received for one purpose may, and must, be used for other purposes if your family is in need. Student loans, intended to fund university fees, must also be used to help the student’s family who have no other income, so that by this time of year many students have run out of money for food. An old-age pension must be used not only for the elderly, but for all of those living in hunger in the household. If you are fortunate enough to have influence you must use it for the sake of your close community.

• Attempts to motivate workers by offering higher salaries to those who are more productive, far from tempting people to try harder, place such people in an invidious position of earning community resentment, so these are not really incentives.

We can all learn from the noble ideals of ubuntu, hlonipha and the patience­ in seeking consensus. Of course it is all a matter of emphasis — these ideals exist in many other cultures. And of course it is easy to point to the reality that Africans don’t always live up to these ideals. Far from ruling by consensus, some might say, in his attempts to please everyone Zuma sometimes fails to rule at all. In a continent racked more than any other by war, rape, genocide and refugees we may wonder what happened to ubuntu. President Robert Mugabe, like many African dictators, is hardly an example of someone who puts community welfare before his own. Julius­ Malema is hardly an example of someone who always shows respect for his elders. Using influence to benefit your community easily becomes nepotism.

The fact that people often fail to live up to their ethical ideals doesn’t mean that the ideals are wrong. G.K. Chesterton famously remarked of Christian ethics: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” The same may be true of traditional African ethics. There is much we can all learn from them.

But no tradition remains unchanged. Africans live in the same global society that we all do. Over the past century African ethics have been merged with Christianity­ and with Islam. Increasingly they have had to come to terms with the realities of technology and science and with the demands­ of a market economy. All of the traditional virtues have to be reinterpreted for a new context. This is true for all cultures; all over the world people are wrestling with what it means to be good. What worked for our grandparents doesn’t always work for us.

So African ethics is a work in progress. It would be a serious mistake­ to imagine that all modern Africans­ think the same as each other, or that all of Africa’s problems would be solved by going back to a rosy-hued imaginary past. Younger African students of ethics are far more nuanced than their predecessors — which is why Felix’s book is important, as he gives scope to writers from Africa who are grappling with this work in progress. Yet, although changing, the echoes of a past ethical tradition still live on, sometimes very strongly. If we would understand Africa, its politics, its ways of doing business, we would do well to know more of that tradition. And who knows: we might find new ways of understanding ourselves as well.

* 2008. Ronald Nicolson (ed.) Persons in Community: African ethics in a global culture. Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press.

** 2009. Munyaradzi Felix Murove (ed.). African ethics: An anthology of comparative and applied ethics. Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and an Anglican priest.

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