I hear a lot of talk about Ubuntu, without commensurate understanding.
“Ubuntu” is characterised by a key phrase in African languages: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (isiZulu) or “Motho ke motho ka batho” (Sesotho). The meaning? A person is a person (human) through, or because of, other people (humanity).
This concept is seen in the psyche of African communities, where “it takes a community to raise a child” is a corollary.
Yet it has been corrupted by capitalism. The “new breed” of African leaders are old-style capitalists. They no longer contribute to, or learn from, their community of origin. Their children often do not speak their parents’ mother tongue, and spend their lives in urban, suburban environments. Some of this is a natural reaction to the wrongs of Apartheid. Urbanisation, globalisation, and the dominance of English as the lingua franca of business, are also to blame.
Yet we are losing the competitive advantage of South Africa. We have twin worlds: the Gini-coefficient research places us as one of the most imbalanced nations with regard to the gap between rich and poor. A Sandton businesswoman may know London or Sydney better than she knows Alexandra.
What can Alexandra – and rural communities – teach urbanised Africans, then?
Well, to begin with, people matter. One cannot live in such a community without seeing the needs. And one cannot remain passive, or uninvolved. One also gets to know one’s neighbours well, and to share in their joys and sorrows.
In smaller communities, people know what is going on, and who can resolve issues. And everyone is an entrepreneur, whether after hours or during office hours.
Beyond these – and other – valuable lessons, I feel that the combination of our histories is the greatest asset we possess. Allow me to illustrate with language as the metaphor.
In English, the future can be communicated in various ways, such as “I will go!” or “I will be going” or “I will already have left, by the time that you get to work tomorrow.”
In isiXhosa, the future is a construct of the present: Ndiza kuhamba (literally “I (will) come to (go)”).
What, then, of the past? The isiXhosa is richer. I can say, “Ndihambe eBhayi” (I went to Port Elizabeth recently), “Bendihamba eBhayi” (I went to PE a little while ago), “Ndandihamba eBhayi” (I went to PE quite some time ago) or even Ndahamba eBhayi (I went to PE ages a long time ago – akin to the language of folk-tales). This helps to explain why some English-speakers have little time for the past, saying we should “move on,” while our Xhosa cousins may prefer to honour the past, and respect ancestral traditions.
Surely we are stronger with our combined strength? This “ubuntu” is a great foundation for fostering dialogue, and focussing our efforts on the achievement of shared vision for our great nation. If we’ll let it be.