New bold ethics for Africa

2009-08-12 00:00

THE publication of African Ethics  — An Anthology of Comparative and Applied Ethics marks the beginning of a new era, according to its editor Munyaradzi Felix Murove, “because it comes at a time when a more comprehensive source on African ethics is needed in Africa and the world as a whole”.

“That’s a bold statement but this is a bold book,” says Murove, who is deputy head of the School of Philosophy and Ethics on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “It is the first collection of views on African ethics to be published in Africa or elsewhere.”

Seventeen scholars have contributed to the book, which explores bioethics, business ethics, traditional African attitudes towards the environment and also investigates indigenous African political systems, and could help develop a new form of democracy.

African ethics do not exist in isolation. “African values have inherited moral values from the western philosophical tradition, Christianity and Islam,” says Murove. “This is Africa’s triple heritage: western culture, Christianity and Islam. They have all influenced the African moral map.”

This formidable trio initially saw no value in Africa’s traditions. “They suppressed indigenous knowledge systems and indigenous religion,” says Murove.

“Scrambled, ethically and emotionally, by long experience of colonialism — and in its most extreme form in this southern tip of the continent, apartheid — Africans have lost touch with their traditional values that have been the source of their identity.”

However, the thinkers in this compilation are not naively proposing a return to traditional ways of life, says Murove. “Instead, they are proposing a broad realignment of existing structures and systems to better reflect the deep-seated beliefs and behaviour patterns integral to the continent.”

These find themselves best expressed in the concept of ubuntu which, according to one of the book’s contributors, is “generally agreed to signify a shared, reciprocal humaneness with a strong sense of community that is also hospitable to outsiders, sometimes linked strongly to respect for the natural environment.”

The idea of ubuntu is deeply rooted in African culture, says Murove. “The way you treat others says a lot about what type of person you are.”

“In African culture there is a great deal of emphasis on ‘being human’ — seeing this as the climax of all existence.”

An emphasis that knits people together. “In townships people know each other. They can tell you where someone lives even if they live 20 kilometres away. Whereas those living in an urban or suburban situation often don’t know who lives next door.”

Ubuntu might be deeply rooted but it is not always practised. The xenophobic violence of recent times in South Africa, divisions along tribal lines in Zimbabwe, massacres in Rwanda or Burundi, hardly reflect notions of hospitality. “People involved in such acts are not part of ubuntu,” says Murove. “They are examples of what ubuntu is not.”

Although there are no concrete sanctions for breaking the principles of ubuntu there are consequences, says Murove. “People see you in a different way. You are contrary to what it means to be a human being. You become diminished in status in the eyes of the community and in the eyes of the ancestors.”

Murove says his book will hopefully open up new ways of understanding and applying ethics. “Especially in a world where you don’t find the ethical mode of living being articulated.”

Ethical values have been suppressed in institutional structures varying from education to business; in a world where the market rules, values of loyalty, integrity, dedication and commitment have been sacrificed. “Clearly much of modern life is found questionable,” says Murove. “One thinks of global warming, conflicts, the threat of nuclear wars.”

All this is happening in a world more interconnected thanks to globalisation. “The world is now shrinking, becoming one — but where is the African voice?” asks Murove. “What contribution can the African voice make?”

Ironically, this shrinking world has experienced a rise in nationalism and religious fundamentalism. The global village is in danger of becoming one big shouting match. “That is an unfortunate reality,” says Murove. “But people are coming together whether they like it or not. But coming up with a way of being that reflects that togetherness needs further reflection.”

“Religious fundamentalists think they have the truth but that has to be tempered by reality, the plurality of truths. We have to learn to talk and to listen to one another sympathetically. Not with the aim of conversion but to admit diversity and be open to listening to and living with each other.”

Murove sees African Ethics as a contribution to this process of talking, listening and learning. The writers come from a variety of countries, some write from a position of religious faith, others from that of non-belief.

“The book reflects the fact that African ethics is all-embracing,” says Murove. “It does not see people in terms of faith or ideological convictions.”

Murove says the various aspects of the book “reflect on African ethics for all dimensions of our existence — religion, politics, health, environment — we ask what would be the contribution of African values,” says Murove. “I want the book to be the starting point of research into ethics in its applied dimension.”

• African Ethics — An Anthology of Comparative and Applied Ethics , edited by Munyaradzi Felix Murove, is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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