One of the most memorable discussions I had with a former editor, the late Aggrey Klaaste, was over the concept of ubuntu. The other was on his “nation-building” campaign he drove through our newspaper, the Sowetan. The difficulty I had with the “nation-building” campaign was that, although he had good intentions, Klaaste had not defined the concept thoroughly, at least not as far as I was concerned, and so it became nothing more than an ahistorical, imaginary construct. As it goes, the idea of a South African “nation” disappears, the way a mirage does, the closer we get to it.
It was, over the concept of “ubuntu” however, that we had the most heated discussions. Again, I agreed with Klaaste about the concept – there is great power in conceptual thinking – but I refused to accept that there was anything uniquely African, especially South African, about ubuntu. I also refused to accept that it would serve as a cohesive force that would inspire us to live together in harmony.
The primordialism, and a necessarily African humanism, at the base of Klaaste’s beliefs were in stark contrast to the mimicry, division and exclusion among African leaders (at the time, during the late 1980s and early 1990s) that were the very features that defined colonial rule. The grotesqueries and pathologies that gave rise to dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko or Idi Amin contradicted the notion of “ubuntu” as an inherently benevolent and necessarily African set of values. I had these discussions with Klaaste before the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre a year later. I left Sowetan during the month of the Srebrenica massacre, and remain stunned and unable to understand the inhumanity of both it and the Rwandan killings.
In my discussions on ubuntu, I put forward a nonidentitarian common humanity. This, I am sure, will not sit well with South Africa’s career identity brokers. I should add that it is dangerous to dismiss their contributions to our discourse as mere frippery. They poison the wells of our search for a better, more prosperous, more stable and more cohesive society based on trust and respect.
I should confess, in hindsight, that, during the time of my discussions with Klaaste, I may have been too engrossed in rather bleak philosophical writings; not that I have any regrets about these influences. I was also not terribly impressed by the direction we were heading into.
Nonetheless, at the time I was convinced by both Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk – with very many discussions with Cyril Ramaphosa, Roelf Meyer, Bantu Holomisa, Gerrit Viljoen, Chris Hani and Leon Wessels, among many others – that the only way to make social progress through politics was by compromise, by understanding the hopes and fears of your “opponent”, by trading in “demands” and making the necessary trade-offs.
I am not name-dropping. These people were central to the process that brought us our Constitution. And, anyway, I still believe in these principles.
Parenthetically, on the issue of “demands”, a quick Google search throws up 46?900 references (in less than a second) to the search string “Zuma” + “We Demand”; 453?000 were thrown up by the search “Economic Freedom Fighters” + “We Demand”; “#FeesMustFall” + “We Demand” yielded 3?340 references; “Democratic Alliance” + “We Demand” threw up 153?000 references; and “African National Congress” + “We Demand” suggested 34?300. In fairness, some of these were duplications.
The string search “African National Congress” + “No Compromise” threw up 86?000 hits.
The point I am trying to make is that almost every sector of South Africa has “demands” that are very narrow and self-centred. Each one of us thinks we are correct, and that our demands have to be met.
Although these results are not central to this discussion, they suggest South Africans are not given to compromise, at least not since the days when Klaaste and I had our early discussions on the concept of ubuntu.
Conceptual thinking is necessarily situated in particular social and historical contexts. They provide us with new explanations for existing states of affairs, and drive us to new concepts or faiths. The concept of ubuntu was then born, at least in the case of Klaaste, amid doubt and concern; doubt about where we were, where we wanted to be, with constant looking over our shoulders.
Ubuntu has increasingly become a trite reference, a chauvinistic and racist weapon of exclusion, exceptionalism, expediency and, in the case of South African foreign policy, a politically vacuous concept quite disconnected from the most tolerable realities in international bargaining and negotiations.
In the first instance, with respect to the triteness of the concept, ubuntu is thrown around as a commercial or technological thing, such as the Ubuntu open-source software platform.
In the second, probably the most insidious and offensive application, we assume that only “Africans” – and only those people we define as Africans – are capable of kindness and decency. This explanation of ubuntu suggests that there was a time, “before the white man came”, when Africans lived in peace and harmony across the continent.
The same primordialism influences most indigenous societies – from the Aleuts to the Zoroastrians – and they would insist that, in their original state, a state of racial, ethnic or spiritual purity, whatever that may mean, they were noble and eternally innocent. Among aboriginal people in Australia there is a belief that “God placed them” on the continent, and that they did not reach it by crossing land bridges.
This chauvinism and notions of eternal kindness, decency and innocence) have become the touchstone of South Africa’s foreign policy – along with the practice of dismissing everything considered “European” or “white”. It is hard to imagine a South African diplomat entering a bargaining chamber with the United States, Russia, China, Israel and Singapore in the World Trade Organisation and asking for special consideration on the basis of ubuntu.
Until we get over our obsessions, and the pathetic tropes about race, and unless we embrace the fact that, as Chinua Achebe said about Nigerians, we just don’t have “the habit of ruling ourselves”, and that we may need to leverage some of the gains that have been made in politics, political economy in governance, regardless of the fact that these gains may have been made by Asians, Europeans or the Matsés of South America, we will continue to drift as a country.
Ismail Lagardien is a political economist and writer