Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Ubuntu in western society

By Melo Magolego

Black South Africans have a penchant for waxing lyrical about botho/ubuntu. It is an ideology which, much like Pratley Putty, we seek to export worldwide. An ideology to which we claim intellectual property and boldly assert is inextricably linked to our being Africans. But is this thing really that unique? Or do we suppose that other societies (more specifically white western societies) lack the collectivist view which we claim warrants distinction in our brand?

A couple of years back I lived in Los Angeles. One day as I was walking from my room to the supermarket and I saw one of the residents of the old-age home across the road taking a stroll around the block. His legs cramped and he fell. I hurriedly crossed the street and tried to help him up. His cramping legs just conspired against my every effort. A couple of people gathered around and one boldly asked “do you need help?” I was incredulous and thought to myself “I don’t know? What does it look like?” But I politely retorted “yes I do”. He then jumped across the street and went back to his house. I was perplexed, shocked and disgusted. Three minutes (exactly) later an ambulance, a fire engine and a police car arrived. It turns out he went to call 911.

This left me wondering whether botho isn’t perhaps a social coping mechanism for our dire poverty and lack of amenities. That is, our botho is a want for material prosperity and a vestige of our communal agrarian selves. If this were true then countries with the most robust infrastructure (eg Switzerland, Germany etc) would exhibit the least ubuntu. But I felt material prosperity did not explain the warmth of botho.

Western society does not lack a collectivist view: collectivism there is outsourced and manifests in payment of taxes and the subsequent provision of services. This intangible stuff, this botho, is our ideology of how an individual relates to the whole. How we negotiate the universal trade-off between individual rights and collective prosperity. This negotiation is not unique: liberalism has always struggled with utilitarianism and individual freedoms.

Our botho can be identified by, among others, the following five characteristics: extroverted communities, socialisation of prosperity, redemption, deference to hierarchy and humanism.

Extroverted communities are the most visible part of this ideology. There is sincere warmth with which we treat strangers and members of the community. This exhibitionist display of warmth is not merely aesthetic but enables formation of spontaneous communities (Bible groups on Metrorail trains and stokvels from taxi passengers). The resultant collaborative work within these spontaneous communities transcends the aesthetic and gives functional significance to the sincere warmth. How else are you to ask for sugar from your neighbour? Warmth is not the sine qua non of community formation but guards against instrumentalist relationships. Further, warmth may leave one vulnerable to those with ulterior motives.

Socialisation of prosperity is similar to redistributive policies in liberalism. This socialisation is a vestige of agrarian man as a hedge against his own crop failures. Socialisation presupposes a community population with which man empathises and concomitantly, has a vested interest in its collective prosperity. Urbanisation and the aggregation of people into an abstract and bureaucratic state undermines this empathy.

Redemption relates to how we deal with errant, deviant and dissident members of the community. The belief is that man is born formless like a lump of clay. It is up to the community, as a whole, to use the fire of experience to mould him into a pot — a pot that may be of general use. Any imperfections should be borne by the community and we should always seek to redeem man. An example of this is the statement by the ANC that it does not throw out its own but rather redeems. A limitation of this is that not all clay is the same.

Deference to hierarchy manifests in many forms: at the top of the hierarchy may be tradition, sangomas, elders, parents, men, authority or peoples. This deference implies that what is good is necessarily what the top of the hierarchy defines it to be. This deference may be called respect — especially with elders and authority. I remember Uganda President Yoweri Museveni saying in The Thinker that people like Muammar Gaddafi (or even western leadership in general) tends to misconstrue this deference as passport to speak to African heads of state as though they were children. The lens of hierarchy of peoples might explain why Mozambicans disproportionately bear the brunt of our xenophobia more than the populous Zimbabwean migrants.

Our humanism asserts that humanness in man is not solely endowed by a transcendental being. But in addition, by whether man subscribes to the ideology of the community. An example is a Zulu-speaking person who when telling you to speak in Zulu would say “khuluma isintu” (speak the language of people). When someone behaves well a Sotho-speaking person would say “ke motho” (he/she is a human). The exclusionary and abhorrent aspect of this would be exemplified by a tale told (often, in private quarters) in Nguni “kushone abantu ababili ne Shangaan”, in Pedi “go tlhokofetje batho ba babedi le leShangane”, in English (two people died and one Shangaan). This also speaks to the hierarchy of peoples.

Each of these characteristics may not be unique to Africa or be universally desirable. Nor do they exist as idealistic forms in current society. But enough of a vestige of the aesthetic of our extroverted communities remains to have meaningful functional significance and warrant distinction.

Melo is also a Fulbright scholar and read electrical engineering at Caltech. Follow on Twitter @melomagolego

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