Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Vuyo Mbuli treated everyone equally

When I saw the report in the Mail & Guardian about the death of Vuyo Mbuli, I could not believe my eyes — he still seemed so young, and life-loving. But then, death does not really discriminate between the young and the old. Still, it was saddening to learn that Vuyo, who has always come across as someone of true magnanimity, someone above and beyond the petty racial prejudice that still characterises so much of social life in South Africa, is no more. I am one of the many who mourn his passing, and will sorely miss his cheerful and intelligent presence on radio and (although I don’t often watch it) television.

What I admired most about Vuyo was the fact that he treated everyone equally as a human being, regardless of race or culture. In fact, he exemplified the kind of person — the kind of South African, to be more precise — whose way of talking and acting made it seem as if there is no reason whatsoever for relations among the different races in South Africa to be fraught with difficulties. I have argued along these lines before on this site although it was in a different context. Vuyo’s charming personality was a reminder to me that the view I expressed there was not over-optimistic or unrealistic — it would have been surprising to witness anyone, even a dyed-in-the-wool racist, maintain an attitude of racial prejudice or antagonism in his company. His openness and even-handedness were enough to disarm even the staunchest bigot.

And why not? After all, people of all races do share a common humanity, something that is easily forgotten under the pressure of dominant conventional discourses or ideologies. This should not be difficult to understand, or accept, considering that Homo and Gyna sapiens, in all their racial and cultural diversity, display the signs of their humanity in many different ways, foremost among them probably being the wide range of cultural artefacts associated with different cultures. As far as this common humanity, regardless of cultural diversity, is concerned, Vuyo was the embodiment of that kind of human being who brings together universal humanity and particular cultural affiliation in one person.

To digress for a moment, it is much more difficult to persuade people of the fact that “having something in common” does not end with other humans, but extends, strictly speaking, to other life-forms as well. The genetic architecture of all living things displays a fundamental similarity, after all, which makes all other living species our distant or near cousins, from trees to dolphins and elephants. This is a good reason to treat other living creatures, too, with respect and consideration, instead of hunting or fishing them to extinction.

Where humans are concerned, there is another reason for emulating Vuyo’s ready acceptance and equal treatment of others (although it did not come without a strong ethical sense of right and wrong, as shown, if memory serves me right, by his tireless public pursuit of justice in the case of policewoman Francis Rasuge, who had disappeared some time before): his singular, welcoming personality stands as a symbol of the unity of all human beings — a unity that is often egregiously undermined by many other people. By “unity” I mean the following: It may come as a surprise to some that all humans on earth today — that is, of every race or culture — have descended from the same ancestors, or more exactly, in all probability from the same ancestor, in the singular. This is how neurologist, evolutionist and philosopher Leonard Shlain puts it (in Sex, Time and Power):

“Though the exact birthdate of our species remains uncertain, the scenario that a single woman birthed the modern human species is on firmer scientific grounds thanks to the reliability of the new science of molecular biology. Laboratory tests performed on mitochondrial DNA can accurately measure the genetic variation that exists between members of a species and the differences existing among species. Scientists can then construct “molecular clocks” and calculate how long ago a particular species split away from its precursor. Molecular biology has proved to be the great Rosetta Stone of evolutionary changes. The existence of an African Eve is extremely likely, because the genetic material of all humans alive today is eerily similar.

“The genes of chimpanzee communities inhabiting ranges only a few thousand yards apart have more genetic diversity than those of humans separated by oceans. Despite the dramatic differences in the skin pigmentation, eye colour, body shapes, and hair types of people from disparate regions of the world, all humans are genetically homogeneous to an extraordinary degree. In fact, there is less than 0.1% difference between the gene structure of any one human and another. This suggests that each of us is a not-so-distant descendant of one fairly recent ancestral female.”

In other words, with the help of advanced molecular science, the unity of all members of the species Homo and Gyna sapiens has been established to a very high degree of probability. I don’t know if Vuyo was explicitly aware of this, but he certainly was intuitively aware of it, judging by the fact that he did not discriminate between people of different cultures or races in his treatment of them. Judging by his way of relating to people, he regarded them all as family. In this, he was a shining example to us all. Would that his legacy to South Africans (and people of other countries, too) could turn out to be greater mutual sensitivity to, and acceptance of our fellow human beings — this would be an appropriate manner to honour the life work of this exceptional human being.

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    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      When I heard Vuyo on one of his last SAFM shows say he had had difficulty climbing the stairs, like everyone else I thought the trouble with his chest was a cold, but I also thought he should not have been at work.

      He will be greatly missed by many people, but let’s hope SAFM give more shows on chest pains and blood clots so we can avoid more unneccessary deaths. Is that not why men with high cholestrol are supposed to take blood thinners like disprin?

    • Richard

      Not wishing to intrude into the mood or purpose of this article, but I read that about five percent of the DNA of ethnic Europeans is found in Neandertals. This five percent is not found in sub-Saharan Africans, meaning that there must be at least that much difference, surely? There is a similar quantity of Denisovan DNA in East Asian populations, which is also not found in other populations groups. Some of the effects of the DNA has even been understood in the Denisovan group as having a role in numerical ability in East Asians.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I sincerely doubt that one Bushman woman trekked out of Africa all on her own 50,000 years ago and populated the rest of the world without the assistance of any man or any clan. Most estimates are a band of about 50 people, and also remember that we are relying only on female DNA, because male DNA mutates too fast apparently.

      And I still want to know how the Bushmen trekked out of Africa 50,000 years ago and the Aborigines trekked into Australia 60,000 years ago (according to all the scientific books I have read).So where did the Aborigines come from 10,000 years before the Bushmen trekked out of Africa?

      Elephants and monkeys are different on every continent – the African to the Asian elephant,and even the Knysna forest elephant to the African savannah elephant. So why should humans come from only one source?

    • Cece Steph

      This is a perfect time to teach the public on heart disease, blood disorders and the importance of regular check ups. I also hope as his kids grow up, that they too be aware as they would now have a strong family history of clotting disorder.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Africa as “the Cradle of Humankind” is a myth based on the discovery of hominoid fossils like Lucy and Mrs Ples. Hominoids died out, like the dinasoar and the woolly mammoth, and are NOT fossils of human ancestors. Because the hominoids have characteristics similar to the ape and chimpanzee and similarities to humans, people have been theorising a “missing link” between them and humans since Darwin published “Origin of the Species”.No such “missing link” has been found, and in my opinion,it does not exist or it would have been found by now.

      If there is no “missing link” between hominoids and humans, the evidence of the Aborigines shows that Africa is NOT “the Cradle of Humankind”.

    • Maria

      Bert, this is a fitting tribute to someone who was, by all accounts, a warm, personable human being. His way of living and interacting with others would indeed be something to emulate, not only in South Africa, but across the globe.

      @Richard and Lyndall: As is the case in all the sciences – no less so in the natural sciences than in the humanities – there seems to be a debate around the particulars concerning the precise dating of the emergence of our species (which varies between 200000 and 100000 years ago, with most scientists settling for about 150000 years ago), but the scientists that Shlain refers to in the book cited by Bert (Cann, Stoneking, Wilson, Sibley and Ahlquist, among others) have indeed argued that molecular biology as means of investigation shows the genetic differences among different races to be negligible. One of the interesting things about this is that the DNA of “mitochondria” is involved, which is important because it does not change through sexual reproduction, whereas “nuclear DNA” does. This is why biologists are able to track the “lineage of a species”, and also why the ancestral woman that Shlain hypothesizes is called “Mitochondrial African Eve”. You can check the scientific references, but there seems to be large agreement about this, despite some minor differences of interpretation of the findings.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      It is to me the height of irony that the Native Bushmen descendants of Africa are STILL the majority of the population of the original Dutch Colony of the Western Cape; whereas the Native Aborigines of Australia are reduced to a few hundred thousand and dying out. The British even advertised in their newspapers at the time that it was safe for new settlers to emigrate to Australia from Britain because “the threat of the Aborigines had been eliminated”!!!! Yet they lecture US on multi cultural democracy????

    • Richard

      @Lyndall, dates seem to be up for discussion, as has recently been demonstrated with the statement that Neandertals died out a lot earlier than previously thought. Archaeological evidence is always open for re-interpretation. Also, source and mutation/evolution are not the same. People could come from a common ancestor and yet have evolved differently according to different conditions. We know, for example, that white skin is more efficient at absorbing vitamin D, which is important in many physiological processes. People with darker skins living in Europe suffer from higher rates of diabetes and other morbidities because they cannot synthesise enought vitamin D from weaker sunlight. Therefore when one with a lighter skin came along through mutation, they were more likely to survive and procreate and so pass on that gene. Likewise people with light skins in Africa fall prey to morbidities associated with less melanin in harsh sunlight. There are other differences, too, whose adaptive advantage we can only guess at, such as higher rates of Alzheimer’s among ethnic sub-Saharans (I say guess at because these only manifest usually after the period of procreation in adults has passed) or raised breast cancer rates and Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews. The idea perhaps is that the genes come in packages, so the genes controlling for raised IQ-scores bring with them genes controlling for Tay-Sachs, say. So some adaptive advantage also brings with it disadvantage.

    • Brian B

      I don’t give a toss about evolution, genetic architecture and so on. to me it is all a delusional cop-out.

      What i do know is that Vuyo Mbuli is an icon in as much as he won the respect and adulation of many diverse South Africans and showed us what is possible if we all work together instead of harping on our differences.
      Sympathies to his family.

    • bev

      A lovely tribuute and article. As a friend of the late Vuyo’s, what you saw is what he was. Always fair, always friendly, always willing to listen and very eager to learn.

      I cannot believe that I wont be seeing him this summer.

    • Live Morning

      Vuyo was a wonderful presnter, a kind man, a great role model and above all – he had a wonderful and charming sense of humour. He will be deeply missed by all South Africans.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The difference between humans and humanoids, like Mrs Ples and Lucy and the inhabitants of Pinnacle Point, is that they are all extinct, and that, although they could communicate, like monkeys and dolphins by making noises, they could not speak, as only Humans (homo sapiens) have voice boxes and vocal cords adapted for speech.

      Read the book “The Singing Neandertals” called that because the author believes they could sing using different tones, even if they could not speak.

      Like the Mammoth is extinct but not the elephant. the sabre tooted tiger is extinct but not the tiger, so all humanoids are extinct. All humans alive today are Homo Sapiens INCLUDING the Australian Aborigines, who arrived in Australia an estimated 10,000 years before the Bushmen are estimated to have migrated out of Africa.

    • Brent

      Bert, you say: “And why not? After all, people of all races do share a common humanity, something that is easily forgotten under the pressure of dominant conventional discourses or ideologies.” Agree time for all you boffins/intellectuals to come down to Earth and smell the roses of mixed human interactions This happens every moment in thousands of interactions daily as people get on with each other and their lives free of the chattering classes ‘couch chair’ moralising. Vuyo was a great example of how all these little ‘forgotten/looked down upon people’ live and relate all their lives. This all happens below the fog of your intellectual clouds. Brent

    • Ndisa

      All I know is that we will as South Africans miss Vuyo deeply. Everywhere you saw him,he always had a smile on his face.The sense of humour was not lost on Twitter and the caring for others,whilst trying to get us talking about issues that affected all and all in this country.
      More Vuyo’s are needed in this world