Mamphela Ramphele

Ubuntu – a vaccine against impunity

2019-02-26 05:00

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Shared values that find expression at the personal, professional and political levels are the only guarantors of mutual respect, collaboration and securing of sustainable social justice for all, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

We need to resist the temptation to regard the widespread looting of public resources for private benefit as acts of depravity of a few bad people. We would do well to confront state capture as a cancer that has embedded itself in the culture of doing business in both the public and private sectors.

These deep cultural roots emanate from the very nature of colonial conquest and the structural injustices at the foundations of apartheid that used political power to capture benefits for a minority of the population at the expense of the majority.

We have yet to acknowledge and address the structural foundations of the wounds of humiliation from being treated as less than human on both the oppressed and oppressor. Human dignity is inherent in the very essence of being human. Humans are born with inherent dignity. Violation of the human dignity of others violates the self and undermines the establishment of a just society.

Failure to systematically "heal the wounds of our ugly past" as enjoined by the Preamble of our Constitution, has left us with a social culture that tolerates violations of the rights of other human beings. State capture, gender-based violence, failure to invest in talent development for 80% of the children of our nation, and indifference to the failures to provide quality basic public services to all, are symptoms of a wounded people.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's courageous work through the various commissions of inquiry to expose stare capture and the culture of impunity in our society in order to bring to book those implicated, needs to be complemented by systematic work of healing the wounds of the past. Healing those wounds is essential to enable us to embrace shared values of Ubuntu to guide our institutions and social relationships. Embracing our inextricable links as human beings would open the door to seeing ourselves in our fellow human beings which would enable empathy.

Empathy is the expression of the essence of Ubuntu – the "I am because you are!" Ubuntu enables you to see me in you and to feel my pain as well as share my joy. We then become consciously connected as fellow human beings and fellow citizens. Stealing from oneself is not possible. So violating the dignity and respect of another would be like inflicting wounds on oneself. A society infused by the values of Ubuntu is unlikely to be as violent as ours is today.

It is striking how little we have invested in the institutionalising our Constitution and its values in our schools, places of worship and workplaces including the public service. Those in the public service, including Parliament and government, rarely make reference to the Constitution as their point of departure and foundation of the values against which they judge their decision making and actions. Without shared values it would be difficult to create a culture of mutual respect and accountability to one another, let alone to future generations. Discharging our stewardship of the national and natural resources we hold for those yet to be born, requires a values based approach.

Over the last 25 years we have built enviable institutions with strong legal frameworks and foundations. State capture and the culture of impunity in human rights violations at home, in schools, in work places as well as in places of worship, have exposed the vulnerabilities of our institutions to abuse. Shared values and mutual accountability are essential vaccines against impunity.

Shared values that find expression at the personal, professional and political levels are the only guarantors of mutual respect, collaboration and securing of sustainable social justice for all. State capture is an expression of alienation by citizens in both the public and private sectors from the institutional foundations of our nation. Citizens who have a strong sense of pride in, and ownership of the institutions and resources of our nation would neither steal from themselves nor tolerate such theft under any circumstance. Nor would such citizens deliberately destroy public property in anger if they had a strong sense of being co-owners. The cost of our failure as a nation to inculcate citizenship as stewardship is huge.

It is not too late to heed the words of the late minister of education and one of the architects and advocates of our human rights infused Constitution, Prof Kader Asmal, who urged us to invest in promoting values based civic education and practice:

"In order for human rights as practice to flourish, there must be particular kinds of relationships between persons, for example, relationships of profound respect for the other. These relationships find expression in human rights as practice also illuminates the connectedness between human rights, human action and moral vision."

For as long as we continue to postpone building "relationships of profound respect for the other" for that long will it be difficult for us to root out practices that undermine our common humanity – Ubuntu.

Healing the wounds of brokenness going back many generations of extreme dispossession and disrespect  would lay strong foundations for building relationships of profound respect for the other. Healing through acknowledgement of wrongdoing past and present and forgiveness of one another is the only guarantor of us being able to work together to build a society characterised by Ubuntu – the I am because you are. Such a society would have no room for state capture and violations of human rights.

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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