Ubuntu- “I am what I am because of who we all are”
Ubuntu is an African ideal or philosophy that loosely translates to humaneness, morality or human kindness. It envisages a socially kind society. A society where one drops a few coins in the cup of the beggar at the robot; or donates towards feeding a hungry child; or assists a stranded motorist; or gives a girl walking home alone at night a lift. A society that recognizes ubuntu is a society where we each actively recognize the humanity of our fellow human beings.
This description does not fully define the term because as Justice Yvonne Mokgoro said, “defining an African notion in a foreign language and from an abstract, as opposed to a concrete approach, defies the very essence of the African world-view and may also be particularly elusive…”
Ubuntu is a word that is often thrown around in this country by lawmakers, trade unionists and public speakers alike. I have heard in one speech or the other, how our society is founded on Ubuntu. Ubuntu is clearly the ideal to which this country aspires. The reality in which we survive, however, could not be further from the concept.
In our reality, ubuntu, at its best, will earn you disappointment. Who can forget the recent revelation that the legless beggar who was a regular sight on Glenhove Road, Jan Smuts, Corlett Drive and Riviera Road in Johannesburg in fact has a working pair of legs? He folded his legs everyday and hoodwinked hundreds of motorists for a very long time until a security guard from a nearby building who had had enough used his cell phone to record a video of the beggar unfolding his legs after a long day of hard work. I imagine that now, it will very difficult for most motorists to feel sympathetic when one of the many crippled beggars at various intersections, approaches their window.
In 2010, People Opposing Women Abuse (“POWA”) conducted and recorded a powerful social experiment that challenged our society’s humanity and sense of ubuntu in a middle-class Johannesburg suburb. POWA placed a young man in a townhouse in a complex. In the early hours of the morning, he practiced enthusiastically on his set of drums and in minutes angry neighbours called the guards. A couple of burly men from homes inside the complex even approached his door and informed him in strong terms that such inconsiderate behavior would not be tolerated. Neighbours milled around outside their townhouses actively voicing their discontent. A few weeks later in the same house and complex and at the same time the young man played a recording of a violent domestic dispute that was over an hour long. The woman in the recording screamed in agony and for help repeatedly, there were sounds of breaking glass and the heavy thud of blows. Not a single neighbour stirred. He played the recording three times and each time no one responded or called security. The video went viral on YouTube with the tagline “every year 1 400 women are killed by their partners. Don’t you think that’s worth complaining about?” How many of us can honestly say we would have done something?
At its worst, Ubuntu could get you killed. In March 2013, the Mthatha Magistrate’s Court sentenced a man to life imprisonment for using a young teenage girl to lure a 27-year-old woman to stop her vehicle. He then hijacked, robbed and murdered the woman who had been moved to stop and help a seemingly stranded young girl.
More and more it seems like we are damned if we do and damned if we do not show our spirit of ubuntu. In a society where a beggar cannot be trusted, picking up a hitchhiker may get you killed, accepting a ride from a stranger means you may never be seen again and your husband could kill you while all your neighbours quietly listen and mind their own business, can we truly say ubuntu is our founding principle.
This is not to say that there aren’t people out there going out of their way to help others and making a huge difference in the lives of those they help. Neither is it to say that every person who seems to need help is out to get you. To reach out and help another is more than a social imperative. It is a human imperative. This is just to say that our social paradigm is one of a distrustful society, a society that hesitates to help, because experience has taught us that ubuntu can be hazardous to one’s health in more ways than one.
More and more it seems that “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” (“I am what I am because of who we all are”) is acquiring a new and rather unpleasant meaning.