Monday, 13 August 2018

Ubuntu's Fifth Wave

'Unity in Diversity' by Oscar Olufisayo Awokunle
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
'Ubuntu' is legendary in Southern Africa.  Its meaning is encapsulated in the idiom, 'Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu'—a person is a person through other people, or 'I am because you are.'  It represents the very reverse of European Enlightenment thinking: 'The individual is prior to the group.'  According to the Luthern minister William Flipping Jr., ubuntu means that 'we are first and foremost social beings.'  This is not to say that ubuntu denies our individuality; rather it incorporates our individuality in the group.
Ubuntu as one describes it, however, and ubuntu as one experiences it, would seem to be two different things.  The concept seems inadequate for describing what it really is.  A personal aside suggests itself here.  I myself, in 2013, 'married into Africa'.  My own identity, in a positive way, was incorporated into that of the clan, so that I was treated with warmth, generosity, and equality—despite being an outsider of sorts.  Apart from this, I discovered an energetic ubuntu which had a very practical interest in the good of all—something which a mere definition seems unable to convey.

There are said to have been three distinct waves of ubuntu—or four, if one inserts the first on this list.
The original 'village ubuntu'—the spirit of 'one for all, and all for one', which existed since ancient time, and included hospitality to the stranger.
The ubuntu, first described around the middle of the 19th century, which referred to African personhood and dignity in the face of dehumanisation by colonists.
The ascendency of ubuntu as a political concept in the late 20th century, promising to restore the personhood and dignity of citizens following apartheid.
The theological turn of ubuntu, which originated with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu—anchored in Christian teachings of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Yet if it is true that ubuntu understands that 'we are first and foremost social beings,' then we would seem, lately, to have travelled in the opposite direction.  We have witnessed increasing individualism in Africa—often heartless and often harmful to the group.  We see it in many ways: self-enrichment, wilful damage to local and national infrastructure, environmental destruction, and so on.  Ubuntu seems to have been fairly powerless in the face of such challenges.

The weakness of ubuntu is to me epitomised by a crisis which the BBC billed as a world first—the water shortage in Cape Town, which would have seen the world's first major city running dry on 'Day Zero'.  One of Pi's own contributors, Sifiso Mkhonto, on the news service News24, highlighted the need for ubuntu.  Yet ubuntu seemed in short supply.  Instead, the city mayor wrote a dramatic letter with the opening lines, 'Day Zero is now likely.  60% of Capetonians won’t save water, we must now force them.'

Ubuntu is an idea which was born in ancient time—in another world, we might say, far removed from us now.  More recent concepts of ubuntu were born in the optimism of social and political change, and seem ill fitted to the 'reality' which has set in today.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu like this: 'When you do well, it spreads out.'  The trouble is, it both does and doesn't.  In the case of Cape Town's water crisis, ubuntu did not spread out to save the city. The city responded to a point, yet it was saved by rain.

We have not yet lifted up ubuntu to the level where Archbishop Tutu's 'doing well' is not just about me and you transmitting the warmth and goodness which a society absorbs, but about a society which can be so organised that it really works for all.  We need a 'fifth wave' of ubuntu, which goes beyond village ubuntu, beyond political ubuntu, and ingrains ubuntu in the fabric of society, as it were.  The advent of true democracy was a positive development for Southern Africa—yet once obtained, the healthful organisation of society is the primary goal.

Religions have known this for millennia.  They have a large foundation of unconditional 'bottom line injunctions'.  Societies, in a similar way, need a comprehensive set of core values which are sacrosanct—a kind of 'super-law' which not only favours ubuntu, but secures it and upholds it with the necessary mechanisms.  That is, an ubuntu of the body politic, embraced as the ideal, embedded in law, and effectively applied.  When that happens, ubuntu may be complete.


Sifiso Mkhonto said...

Thomas, Thanks for the brief mention. The new Ubuntu is making waves now in Africa, 'Unity in Diversity'. Africans are shying away from “It takes a village to raise a child” and “No man is an Island” to embracing their individuality mainly because of the self-indulgence (exploiting societies resources, greed and corruption) shown by leaders of societies especially government, traditional and religious leaders. As well as individuals who are living their own ‘truth’. The truth that one accepts he is different to another in gender, race, thought etc.
Africans embracing individuality has been very beneficial in a sense that those who are ‘harmful’ to society are now being held accountable by individuals who feel their rights and those of others are exploited.
The downside has been individuality that is harmful to society. Those who operate solely on the intent to disable the functions which unite society in its diversity.
The element of unity in diversity is the new Ubuntu. However it still needs to adopt a few elements of the original Ubuntu.

Keith said...

For my own understanding, Thomas: Is ‘ubuntu’ a set of ‘norms’ — social, behavioural, cultural, moral, religious, legal, communal — that imbue society through doctrine, custom, and code? And if so, has ubuntu always been in flux — whether slowly or fast — as African countries reinvent themselves, much as other countries do?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Keith and Sifiso.

In reply to Keith, more often than not ubuntu is seen as a 'philosophy'. Some say 'concept'. My own definition, from my own experience, would be: the whole community, through the whole community, is guaranteed of warmth, support, and security throughout life. This then suffuses various norms. With regard to flux, what I see above all is that modern ways of life place ubuntu under strain -- but that seems too big a topic now.

In reply to Sifiso, your comment reminds me of Mandela's words: 'Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?' You comment that 'a few elements' of the original ubuntu are missing today. I am not sure we see the want of ubuntu in the same way here. When a 'mother' waits for twelve hours for medical attention, that is not ubuntu. When a 'daughter' cannot walk safely to school, that is not ubuntu. And so on. Thus I am looking at it from the point of view of application. I would see a 'fifth wave' of ubuntu as securing ubuntu in our modern society. The philosophy is widely and well understood, and could serve as a powerful diagnostic concept: 'Is this ubuntu?' If people in the formal sector in particular would ask themselves that question every morning, things could not be the same.

docmartincohen said...

I wrote a long comment but it got lost!

I just note that appeals to selflessness can be delivered from 'on high' or come from vested interests, who meanwhile apply different standards to their own activities. The case of the UK water compnay that reduced the city of Bradford to emergency water in the 80s came to mind - the company appealed to individuals to think of others, for example by washing with only a bucket and a sponge (the director demonstrated this on television)! but all the while the real problem, as my local envonment group argued in a newspaper ad, was the greed of the water company itself. The story I started with was about the effort of the $ billion water company to appeal to the UK's national adjudicating body for 'advertising standrds' about the 'truth' of our claim. They did, and they lost! But their incompetence and greed were cloaked in the language of social concern and responsibility. We need, I think, to move beyond such aspirational flowers to hold politicians and businesses to account.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Yes, absolutely Martin. And to tie it in to my post, hold them to account to the standards or aspirations of ubuntu.

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