Ubuntu

Print

by Stephen B. Young, 7/20/08 • It is Friday July 19, 2008, and Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. I am in Cape Town, South Africa, and can see from my hotel Robben Island where Mandela spent 27 years in prison.

His crime: opposing a regime using the powers of a police state to impose an ideology. Ideology is conformist; it is communal righteousness that can brook no challenge from independent thought or mere personal whim. Certain truths apparently so brittle that they can’t survive a rough passage through the storms of human needs, passions and perceptions.

Mandela had a more indefatigable truth than the white Afrikaners did. He rose above communalism and racism – and the feelings arising from 27 years in prison – to lead South Africa away from a dark past.

Here among Mandela’s people – the Xhosa – the cultural frame for building community is “ubuntu”. The Cape Town paper this morning printed an essay from a journalist who visited Mandela’s home village, one rather isolated among hills and fields that was restful and open to the play of natural powers. “Ubuntu” thrives in such villages where you are what your surroundings make you. Expressed in you are others – ancestors, parents, friends, drumbeats, ceremonial honors, childhood games and hard work.

I had come to Cape Town for the quadrennial meeting of the International Society for Business, Economy and Ethics (ISBEE). Several of the scholarly paper presentations that caught my attention discussed African philosophy and ethical traditions. “Ubuntu” was described and highlighted as an antidote to Western self absorption with striving and getting ahead of the Joneses.

I could see the point. But one of the presenters – an American teaching in an African business school – made another point as well. “Ubuntu” like any community ethic comes with a price. The price is some degree of stultification and conformity to what the community believes and stands for. If there is too much “we”, what role can there be for the “I”?

“Ubuntu” also leads to fragmentation and rivalries as the circumference bounding the community expands to take in new communities. The question comes quickly: with whom do I experience “Ubuntu”? Just who is part of my “we”?

“Ubuntu” outside the mind and skills of Nelson Mandela seems no check on the divisiveness of tribalism. In Rwanda, the “Ubuntu” of the Hutu did not extend to the Tutsis during the genocide.

Now in South Africa, Mandela’s legacy is being challenged by more limited spheres of “ubuntu”. Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, are Xhosa. The newly elected head of their political party – the ANC – is a Zulu. This man, Zuma, has been brought to trial for corruption and accused of rape. As I arrived in Cape Town a few days ago, the papers reported that Zuma’s new team at the head of the ANC had sacked for no apparent reason the head of the Cape Town provincial administration. And the head of the ANC youth league, a Zuma ally, had called for the “killing” of a rival party seeking more constitutional checks and balances. What is needed, it was said, was a kind of cleansing, a transformation of the old ways into new ones, power structures more authentically African. Coming under instant criticism for his policy stance, this leader quickly backtracked and said he was only talking of “eliminating” such people.

My thought is to ask in seeking an authentic “ubuntu” based regime for South Africa after Mandela, who will be on the inside and who on the outside?