Sunday 1 September 2013

Ubuntu: more than a braai

This is the Sunday Independent opinion column from 1 September 2013

On the first day of Heritage Month, I wonder if I dare admit that I am only a limited fan of braaing, especially as I largely gave up red meat a couple of years back for health reasons, and have since felt all the better for it.

Heritage Month is about celebrating the best of what it means to be South African, in this beautiful land which we share, and across the whole breadth of our diversity. I’m sympathetic to the view that we should give greater prominence to ubuntu as the keystone of our common heritage. This is a distinctly southern African understanding of what it is to be truly human, through our participation in the humanity of others.

Beginning with ubuntu, rather than the braai, puts a completely different spin on how we approach this month. It’s not that I’m against braaing. Far from it! But I’d like us to move beyond focussing on lowest common denominators to which we can all sign up. For this can be seen as implying that our differences must otherwise dominate the way we view one another.

In contrast, ubuntu invites us to assume that our starting point, our real context, is what we have in common. We are all flesh and blood human beings who desire to live in peace, security and relative comfort with our nearest and dearest, able to bring up children in safety so they too may go on to lead lives that are, to a realistic degree, happy and fulfilling. When we recognise this in one another, differences such as race, language, culture and religion inevitably become secondary, and less significant.

On this basis, we can far more easily stand together, as we must, in tackling the divisions that ought to be opposed, such as the shocking economic disparities, because those who are on the wrong end of such differences are no longer seen as “them” but as “us”.
Of course this is a big ask, but we have to start where we are, and take what steps we can.

This week has been a good one for me in encountering ways in which ubuntu is alive and well, if only we have eyes to see. On Monday I was in Ulundi, where celebrations for Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s 85th birthday included unveiling a statue and a service of thanksgiving, at which I was privileged to preach. He, like his mother Princess Magogo, is a life-long Anglican, and has let his faith nurture his family and public life. However, one views the life he has devoted to politics, few can have been left untouched by the courageous and heart-breaking honesty with which he spoke about the death of two adult children from Aids. At a time of denialism, he spoke out, and gave a voice to the tens, even hundreds of thousands of South Africans who had lost a loved one to this pandemic, but who were trapped in the conspiracy of silence. He stood in solidarity with them all, and helped break the stigma and change how we dealt with this scourge.

Tuesday morning found me at the Constitutional Court ceremonial sitting to honour the late Judge Pius Langa, a former chief justice of our new democracy. I was privileged to call this outstanding man a friend. He was an amazing intellectual, yet always ensured his mind was informed by his heart and his soul. He understood, perhaps better than anyone I have ever met, the true meaning of the rule of law, and how the letter of the law must deliver the spirit of the law, in the service of constitution, country, and all its citizens. This also is the mark of authentic ubuntu.

I felt proud to be a South African, listening to speeches that praised all Judge Langa had achieved, yet also acknowledged there was still so much to be done to bring about a united, reconciled, non-racial society, free from the scourge of poverty. To walk this path, as many have said, requires selflessness and commitment to the public good – commitment to the realisation in practice of all that ubuntu stands for.

How to encourage a more stable and sustainable environment, in which workers also flourish, was at the heart of Tuesday’s mining lekgotla in Sandton. In the margins, I had a “mini-lekgotla” with top executives of Anglo American, and in genuine dialogue we brought the perspectives of faith and ethics into vigorous engagement with those of business and economics. How to promote better human flourishing of all, in whatever contexts we are part of, is a topic that should engage us all, particularly through holding conversations that bridge our differences – and here I also include age and political partisanship alongside the old familiar labels.

Within the context ubuntu provides, we can dare to pursue the robust honesty that is necessary if we are to get beyond superficial words and break down the barriers we have allowed to stand between us. Especially as we approach next year’s elections, we need to know, and make explicit, that we truly are all on the same side, and it is from this stance that we engage over differences.

Pope Francis recently lamented those who have “good manners and bad habits”, who say the right thing, and even argue for it publicly, but whose actions show a preference for staying within their own comfortable space, reluctant to take risks, and preferring the company of those like themselves. Bad manners also come in the “othering” of those who are not like us, and mentally placing them at a distance where they can conveniently be left, largely ignored. Cowardice, thuggery, corruption and worse can all hide behind the appearance of “good manners”.

So I want the fine words of public tributes, lekgotlas, and popular debate to be matched by action that goes the extra mile which ubuntu demands from us, and that grasps restorative opportunities. For example, I’d like to see those in the construction cartel not merely accepting their legal penalty, but making practical amends such as through delivering sanitation, toilets, schools and other necessary amenities in our neediest communities.

Taking that further, those who benefited from apartheid, and those who enjoy the legacies of those ill-gotten benefits, must consider this month the time to set in motion concrete steps to redress the balance. We must not be shy of talking about making financial reparations, and channelling these into areas like education where we can make the greatest difference. I’m already engaged in dialogue around such possibilities at Wits Business School. Heritage Month, and the moral imperatives of ubuntu call on us to intensify our focus and commitment.

And what about the rest of us? At the very least, I hope that at least once this month, when you fire up your braai, you will make sure that your invitations go beyond “the usual suspects” to embrace the new friends that ubuntu brings you.

Happy Heritage Month.