Let's never mention ubuntu again

2012-07-11 00:00

TO KLIPTOWN, in Gauteng, where busybodies from across the political spectrum gathered at the National Cohesion Summit and bored the pants off one another.

The summit, you’ll recall, was first mooted by President Jacob Zuma back in 2009, when he somehow had an idea that a culture of being respectful to elders such as himself would be in the national interest. It was then duly forgotten and allowed to quietly die in a corner somewhere.

The furore over artist Brett Murray’s The Spear, however, presented arts and culture minister Paul Mashatile with an opportunity to exhume the mouldering beast, douse it with patchouli and, in the interests of a better and caring society, provide a platform from which to guff on about the sacred cow that is ubuntu.

The author and social historian Luli Callinicos had a fair bash. “Our own culture is being undermined,” she said. “We need to restore ubuntu. Because this is something we can teach the rest of the world. We must be careful not to lose it.”

On the contrary, let’s just stop talking about it altogether. Never mention it again.

Ubuntu, I’ve heard ad nauseam, has many qualities, all of them purportedly good. For instance, it dictates that we place a high value on human life, promote understanding and tolerance, are generous in our dealings with others, and so on. These, frankly, are universal concepts and are not uniquely African in any way whatsoever. However, it is only the South African moral narcissist who will shamelessly declare that ubuntu is something we can teach the rest of the world. The possibility that such a position is divisive will, of course, never be considered by those who promote an “otherness” that is based on the premise that their “humanity” is more advanced or better than others’. How strange that such people even move among us in the 21st century.

Still, the summit wasn’t a total waste of time. Western Cape premier Helen Zille was on the button in telling delegates that social cohesion was not something the state could impose on society. “No government can, by itself, ‘create’ a cohesive society, or foist a common culture upon a passive populace,” she said.

Government will nevertheless try, and we’re to be subjected to at least nine provincial social cohesion summits in the coming year, and a national summit in 2017.

Worryingly, given our leadership’s alarming embrace of a conservative Christianity and other “traditional values”, one bunch of God botherers at the summit — the ponderously titled Commission for Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities — announced that it had planned eight projects “in order to build the nation and ensure that social cohesion values are practically implemented”. All of which suggests that we could see some movement, in the coming months, from the National Interfaith Leadership Council, the religious advisers and other bearded weirdies that Zuma threw together with Rhema’s Ray McCauley soon after he became president. A darkness looms, you could say.

But back to social cohesion. The Joe Berlinger documentary, Under African Skies: Paul Simon’s Graceland Journey, which was screened by SABC TV recently, included footage from the memorable concerts the singer gave with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the late Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and other South African musicians at the Rufaro Stadium in February 1987. Many of us made the trip northwards that happy weekend, and it was somehow affirming to see that, even then, when apartheid was at its most vicious, South Africans of all races were quite capable of getting along and having fun with one another.

At the time, however, the ANC were quite unhappy with Simon for coming to Johannesburg in 1985 and working with South African musicians, and accused him of breaking the cultural boycott. In the film, the singer related how, in the face of a mounting political row, he had approached the ANC in New York. “They said, ‘Look, here’s the problem. You went to South Africa and you didn’t ask us. And the way we’re structured is, you have to ask the ANC [for permission] if you’re going to do anything.’

“So I said, ‘Oh really? Is that the kind of government you’re going to be? We have to show you what kind of lyrics we’re going to write? Or if the Musicians Union decides to vote this way and you don’t like the way they vote? Then you’ll change it round? You’re going to f**k the artist like all kinds of governments? What are we talking about here?’

“The guy’s response was, ‘Hey, personally, I agree with you, but that’s what policy is.”

— politicsweb.

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