Jess Auerbach
Jess Auerbach

It’s so, like, ubuntu…

Recently, just before a small performance at the fringe of the fringe of the Grahamstown festival, I wondered past two very happy looking teenagers, their eyes curled heavenwards to the sunset in a state of marijuana-induced peacefulness, their tie-dyed fairy shirts flapping in the breeze. “Oh dude, check out the sky” remarked one to the other “it is so, like, ubuntu”. Later on I passed them again, this time curled up together sound asleep no doubt dreaming of togetherness, peace and the bright shining colours of the rainbow.

Ubuntu, as Achille Mbembe recently observed at a panel discussion at UCT on ubuntu in relation to law, is pervasive in South Africa. From long-term philosophical traditions of the region to software development and via trippy kids at music festivals, this is a concept that has been noun-ed, verb-ed and adverb-ed in a manner that JK Rowling can barely dream of. Quidditch, after all, is not implicit in any constitution.

The panel to which I refer was chaired by Hylton White and included a number of eminent intellectuals, including Mbembe. Unisa’s professor of philosophy, Mogobe Ramose, Chicago’s John Comaroff and UCT’s Thandabantu Nhlapo and Drucilla Cornell all contributed to the two-hour debate, which saw students hanging from railings to hear and all but refusing to leave.

Why has this concept become such a part of our collective imagination?

Is it because our law, through its very construction, remains colonised and ubuntu offers us some small alternative in our thinking? Does it promote what Albie Sachs and Yvonne Mokgoro refer to as the “ethical encounter” when they evoke it in their judgements? In law, does it mark a “substantive revolution” that has allowed people to come together in new ways, as Cornell proposed? And is it a signal of what we can collectively identify as our code of ethics as a society?

My gut feel, listening to that panel, was that ubuntu was invoked politically at a certain moment — the 1993 interim constitution — with a very specific strategic purpose: bridging the old and the new. For a country a little, erm, up the creek on the moral frontier, it offered a notion which was both romantic and practical, simple and heterodox. We had to get from Bad to Good and it helped us find that direction.

A fuzzy compass, though, is not enough. Brandwashing with afro-positive-deep-philosophy is akin to tripping out on a knoll at the Grahamstown festival and if anything is disrespectful of the traditions from which the value emerged. Instead, politicians, law-makers, students and teachers, tradeswomen and men and indeed civil society need to figure out what ubuntu means in everyday life. How does “ubuntu” speak to consumerism? How does it deal with ambition and avarice? Who tells us how?

Prof Ramose was great. He smiled benignly at the crammed up audience and said calmly “to be honest, I have to admit, I hate to be called an African. It is like a baptismal name, it holds no authority for me”. His comment pointed to the limits of language, never mind philosophy, in defining who we are. Given how complex the world can become, it’s a wonder we ever get anything done at all.

I laughed to see the dignitaries’ double-take, never mind the audience. Shucks, if we can’t even call ourselves African what are we left with? How ubuntu is that?!

Speech is complicated enough, though, never mind when refracted through legal documents, mass media and 11 official languages. Maybe it’s when you shrug off the language that ubuntu happens — in the little courts, in the nursery schools and the odd board-room where profits are actually used for greater good. Maybe just living is how we get our authenticity after all, for all the paradoxes that this entails. But for which good?