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Artillery Row

Ubuntu and the path to progress

South Africa cannot continue down the road towards conflict

On the way to Cape Town International Airport the morning after the Rugby World Cup final, signs usually used to announce traffic delays celebrated South Africa’s victory, whilst billboards encouraged South Africans to support their team using the official slogan “stronger together”. Most teams had similarly hackneyed phrases regurgitated by marketeers for executives trying to drive commercial revenue, but this slogan had a wider resonance. Post-match, Siya Kolisi, the Springbok’s first black captain, highlighted the country’s problems, but expressed the hope that their triumph could bring the country together. Kolisi has also pointed to an African philosophy that the country’s post-apartheid leaders hoped could achieve the same thing between sporting successes. With the economy floundering, politics becoming more divisive and the country still struggling to move past the toxic legacy of apartheid, South Africa needs all the hope it can get.

Kolisi claimed, “There is so much going wrong in our country … there is so much division.” One of the most obvious things going wrong is the crippling power cuts, known locally as “load shedding”, caused by years of mismanagement by state-owned utility Eskom. They ceased during the tournament but resumed days afterwards, suggesting they are more a result of corruption and mismanagement that can temporarily be halted than faulty infrastructure.

This is just one of many problems. Unemployment and crime rates, especially violent crime, are amongst the highest in the world. In rural areas, many lack access to electricity and reliable internet. Public debt is high, reducing the government’s ability to meet development needs and respond to shocks (such as Covid-19 and increased food and energy prices, which have pushed up inflation).

Some of these challenges are the result of global events, but many are the consequence of apartheid. The legal division of people by race (introduced with the Population Registration Act of 1950 that legalised discrimination and segregation) was repealed in 1994, but its legacy will take generations to undo.

Oppressive minority regimes will, recognising the danger of the strength in numbers of the majority beneath them, often seek to divide the people they rule over. In 1997 I taught in Lebowa, one of the ten areas designated as “Homelands” — areas of poor agricultural land with little other economic opportunities — to which the apartheid government sought to assign every black African according to their ethnic identity. This was to permanently remove the Black population from White South Africa, geographically dividing the races. On a recent visit to Robben Island, which housed the notorious prison for political prisoners, my guide highlighted that even there, prisoners were given different uniforms and rights to foster division amongst them, rather than towards the guards.

Apartheid legislation has been replaced by official positive discrimination. As much as racial classification is an anomaly in a country attempting to move beyond apartheid, the argument is that progress can only be measured based on the old categories. The impact of apartheid was so pervasive that a forced correction is needed. The average white South African still earns more than four times the average black one. The overall unemployment rate is over 30 per cent but closer to 40 per cent for black South Africans. Behind the billboards on the way to the airport, thousands of black South Africans still live in the same crowded shantytowns they lived in under apartheid.

Nonetheless, there are some who believe that to move forward with nation-building the country needs to move past the dominance of racial identity. Dr Saths Cooper, who spent over five years on Robben Island for anti-apartheid activities, argues that this dominance has prevented the forging of a common identity. Cooper claims focussing on race perpetuates further division. Post-apartheid, levels of inequality have grown. That inequality still maps onto race. He claims, “We haven’t learnt we are human beings first.” The extreme violence that regularly accompanies robberies, burglaries and car-jackings suggests the perpetrators do not see the victims as fellow humans, but representatives of identities associated with past oppression or conflict.

Those too young to remember apartheid are demanding faster progress

Ryland Fisher, who initiated Cape Town’s One City Many Cultures project in 1999, argues, “If we adopt class as the marker for redress, we will inevitably be able to benefit more black people.” Similar arguments have been made by those concerned that identity politics in the West are consigning to oblivion many of those who suffer most from current economic systems. In South Africa, to help those at the bottom of society, a focus on reducing the crippling corruption and inefficiencies in state-owned infrastructure is needed to create economic growth that could be invested in improving housing, health and education. This investment will, in the long term, fuel more growth by releasing human potential that apartheid locked out of the economy, addressing racial inequality as it addresses economic inequality.

In his homecoming address Kolisi claimed, “You have to be a South African to understand the hardships you go through in this country.” Yet, many South Africans, especially those too young to remember apartheid, are now tiring of these hardships, and they are demanding faster progress.

The African National Congress (ANC) lost its outright majority in local elections in 2021 for the first time since 1994. The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa is dealing with the legacy of the presidency of Jacob Zuma (2009–18). Zuma presided over an assault on South Africa’s institutions. Corruption seeped into every corner of public life. Unemployment and crime rates, which had been declining, soared. Zuma’s government claimed to be helping those at the bottom of society, but they were mostly just helping themselves. Zuma’s imprisonment in 2021 on contempt of court charges (brought during the trial for the use of public funds on his mansion) sparked widespread unrest, resulting in over 350 deaths.

Voltaire claimed that history is the pattern of silken slippers descending the stairs to the thunder of hobnailed boots climbing upward from below. If Zuma’s government donned silken slippers, the hobnail boots are on the feet of Julius Malema.

Malema was expelled from the ANC in 2012 for fomenting divisions and bringing the party into disrepute. In 2013 he founded the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a “militant economic emancipation movement”, that pledges to nationalise key sectors of the economy. It draws its support from black South Africans who feel left behind. In March the military was deployed after Malema called for nationwide protests in a bid to remove Ramaphosa. Malema called on workers to take part in a “national shutdown”, declaring that “no one can stop a revolution”. Malema has been taken to court on hate speech charges for singing the protest song “Shoot the Boer”, which refers to white South Africans from Dutch descent. Kolisi claimed, “We are very diverse [as a team] … Diversity is our strength in South Africa.” Malema’s rhetoric implies he does not agree. He wants to break the existing economic and political system, pursuing a politics of revolutionary division.

The latest polls put EFF support at approximately 13 per cent, up from 11 per cent at the 2019 election but still significantly behind the ANC and the centrist Democratic Alliance party (DA), who in August formed an alliance with six smaller parties, with the aim of unseating the ANC. The polls also show a decline in ANC support, from 57.5 per cent in 2019 to around 50 per cent. They suggest that the ANC is losing support from more racially diverse middle-class and urban voters. Its reliance on affirmative action, alleged cronyism and failure to address corruption are regularly cited as reasons behind this. Next year’s election could result in a coalition government with Malema a political kingmaker. The DA will not form a coalition with the EFF, but the ANC, to cling to power, might.

Those who push for revolution want, more often than not, to change who holds power, not how it is held. The challenge that Malema poses to the status quo highlights a tension that Carolyn Holmes, in her book on race, citizenship and memory in South Africa, deems key. Holmes claims that nation-building efforts, such as the Springboks’ “stronger together”, encourage citizens to focus on their similarities, putting their differences aside. Conversely, democratic institution building requires fostering opposition through conducting multiparty elections and encouraging debate. Leaders of democratic political parties often resort to consolidating their power by emphasising difference. Western Liberal democracy on which the South African model is based is an adversarial system, which contrasts with the consensus-based democracy promoted by African traditional governance systems, which are influenced by the communal nature of engagements of the extended family and tribe. Voting still broadly follows ethnic lines. These contradictory forces must be held in tension. The type of populist politics encouraged by Malema puts strain on this tension. Recent rhetoric from ANC politicians on foreign workers, along with the registering of the anti-migrant vigilante organisation Operation Dudula as a political party, show that such policies are increasingly seen as vote winners.

Ubuntu places the community as the source and custodian of moral standards

The achievement of a peaceful transition of post-apartheid power should not be underestimated. Many commentators forecasted large-scale retributive violence, even civil war, as well as the collapse of the economy as foreign investors fled and white South Africans who had dominated the economy followed. They avoided the worst-case scenarios under the inclusive leadership of the Government of National Unity. President Nelson Mandela and the other leaders who met in Robben Island came from ethnicities and political parties that would not have interacted if they had not been forced to share a prison. The ANC developed from a liberation movement into a social-democratic political party that balanced economic and social policy interventions to rectify social injustice, with managing a mixed capitalist economy. Holmes recognises the work done in building democratic institutions, including delivering free and fair elections, but he questions how successful the attempt to build a South African community, based on the narrative of a Rainbow Nation, has been. An ethnically diverse Springbok team (almost half the team are black, compared to one player when they first won in 1995) helps take up that strain, but is it enough? How can individuals come to identify as “South Africans” when for more than a century, they were legally and culturally identified by race and ethnicity?

Holmas tells of a visit to the Ncome River, site of the 1838 battle between white Afrikaner settlers and Black fighters from the Zulu empire. There are two museums on opposing riverbanks. One is dedicated to the Afrikaner interpretation of the battle: a story of victory by a group of pioneers determined to take land they believed to be theirs built in 1947. The other, built in 1998, tells the story of the brave Zulu warriors who fought in the battle on their ancestral land. When Holmes visited, she asked the visitors of each museum, who were from the respective communities, if they were going to cross the river and visit the other museum. Neither group she spoke to said they would.

In the school holidays, when I was teaching, I would hitchhike around. I was picked up by people from every ethnic group, and they were all keen to tell me their version of the South African story. Every version was different, often markedly so — such is the kaleidoscopic nature of the Rainbow Nation. As I chatted with the generous South Africans who picked me up, I realised I was hearing versions of their story that they themselves would not hear.

In 2013 a bridge was built at Ncome River, intended to literally and figuratively connect the museums providing a path to reconciliation. It tried to answer the question, how do you connect all those storytellers, like the ones who picked me up and shared their stories with me, who had never shared their stories with each other? A sign claims the bridge “moves beyond linking these two institutions to connect and unite citizens through shared history, heritage and values towards unity in diversity and nation building”. Yet it was beset with problems from the start. Locked gates and razor wire make it impossible to get from one side to the other if anyone wanted to. Holmes sees the bridge as an allegory of post-apartheid nation-building.

The most successful effort to build bridges was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), formed to investigate and address the atrocities committed during apartheid. This was an ambitious attempt to recognise injustice, across the competing histories and narratives, and balance the need for justice for those wronged against the need to avoid future injustices. It covered crimes committed by the state and liberation movements. Whilst there have been challenges to implementing many of its recommendations, it helped the many victims find a voice and helped the country avoid retributive violence. Its chairperson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, credits this to the same philosophy that inspired Mandela’s collaborative and conciliatory approach, which was cited by Kolisi in an interview in January.

Tutu claimed, “The single main ingredient that made the achievements of the TRC possible was a uniquely African ingredient — Ubuntu.” This philosophy inspired so many to choose to forgive rather than to demand retribution and revenge. Mandela wrote of Ubuntu as a guiding philosophy in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. When asked what one bit of advice he would give people when faced with the daily problems of South Africa, Kolisi replied, “Ubuntu.”

Tutu defined Ubuntu as referring to “compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available to others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life”. Mandela claimed that Ubuntu is the essence of being human. “It is about compassion, understanding, forgiveness and respect. It is about realising that we are all interconnected and that we share a common humanity.” Tutu often used the Xhosa saying that “a person is a person through other persons”. Kolisi used the same phrase in his interview, claiming when growing up in a Port Elizabeth township, he learnt, “People are people through others.” Ubuntu thinking contains the idea that no one can be healthy when the community is sick. Ubuntu says I am human only because you are human. If I undermine your humanity, I dehumanise myself. Ubuntu explains why solitary confinement, which Mandela described as “the most forbidding aspect of prison life”, is such a cruel punishment.

As well as prioritising communal interests, Ubuntu places the community, rather than just the individuals that make up that community, as the source and custodian of moral standards. Personhood is defined in terms of conformity to these established moral standards. A person not only achieves humanity through their relations with others they interact with in the present, but also those that have come before them. Respect for elders is a non-negotiable matter, since these are the custodians of these values and fountains of moral wisdom. Ubuntu suggests the answers to the future will be found in the past. Such wisdom is often passed from generation to generation through the use of proverbs.

Ubuntu also has relevance for environmental thinking, describing individuals in one evolving system of everything, in which we are bound up in not just interpersonal relationships, past and present, but also in a relationship with all the living world around us. Its notions of existence and epistemology, which place both personhood and knowledge outside the wet stuff in our heads, can encompass cognitive science concepts of extended minds. These put forward the idea that our minds involve, not just the rest of our bodies, but the tools and technology — and all those that interact with them — on which we increasingly rely to think.

It is easy to dismiss Ubuntu thinking as obvious folksy wisdom, but looking at our own society with its ahistoricism and its emphasis on the self and self-definition through the promotion of individual rights and freedoms, it would do us no harm to consider some of the basic tenets, such as developing citizens that are more communo-centric rather than individualistic, preserving and promoting the accumulated knowledge of those who came before us and recognising a common humanity across the superficial battlelines of the culture wars and political tribalism.

The new South Africa, at its conception, took it seriously enough to build it into its political foundations. Ubuntu was recognised in the epilogue to the interim constitution in 1993. When Malema was found guilty of hate speech in 2011, judge Colin Lamont invoked Ubuntu, claiming the preservation of this foundational ideal is so important that it trumps even the right to free speech. As the economy continues to struggle and political campaigning is likely to become more racially divisive the closer we get towards next May’s general election, it is time for a return to this foundational ideal.

Racial division has been the foundation of South African politics for much of the last century. More division is not the answer, socially or economically. Whilst the policy interventions of the post-apartheid years were necessary, rediscovering Ubuntu both as a tool to build consensus and community, and an identifying characteristic of that community, can help the country move past the politics of division and keep the fragile tension in balance. Ubuntu can help build society based on an appreciation of common humanity rather than continuing to use apartheid’s categories. It can help to focus an anti-corruption drive, appealing to communal moral standards rather than the individual’s desire to benefit themselves and their immediate network at the cost of wider society. It can help to point investment back towards the poorest in South African society regardless of ethnicity, ensuring that those lifted out of poverty see it as their duty to return and lift up others left behind.

Mandela saw that sport can help build bridges. On Robben Island the prisoners got to know each other during backbreaking Sisyphean work in the island’s lime quarry. Sports fields can do what that quarry did. Mandela wore the Springbok jersey after the 1995 final, reclaiming an emblem that had been used divisively during apartheid. In 1997 only a few of those I spoke to in Lebowa, inspired by 1995, had any interest in the Springbok series against the British Lions. In 2023 I spoke with many black supporters. This victory can build more bridges across communities, but sport can only do so much. Over the last decade, the fuse for social unrest has been shortened. Elections next year could provide the unwelcome spark that lights that fuse. Whether it is the Springbok victory, or a rediscovery of Ubuntu, South Africa needs something to dampen the fuse. No matter how quixotic the task may seem, South Africa must continue to nation-build, for otherwise we could see worst-case scenarios play out thirty years after they were forecast.

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