Andrew Donaldson ill-informed about Ubuntu

Barbara Nussbaum says to stop talking about it would deny a core part of our spiritual heritage

Let's Talk about Ubuntu and Live it - a response to Andrew Donaldson

Why do so many journalists decry Ubuntu? And what stops the promise of Ubuntu from flying high and rooting itself deeply? The recent article written by Andrew Donaldson requires a rapid response.  

To his credit, Donaldson's article sheds light on the meaning of moral narcissism. According to Jay Gaskill, this kind of narcissism describes people who have adopted a "camouflage strategy to escape the moral disapproval of others." "They accomplish this camouflage by cloaking their narcissism in the trappings of ‘social justice positioning.

They create an artificial moral universe where ‘standing for' is the equivalent of ‘doing for." If one is cynical enough to believe that this was the whole intention behind the Social Cohesion Summit then the use of the word moral narcissism may have some merit.

However, the writer is ill-informed about Ubuntu and his article simply confirms his lack of knowledge about the distinguishing features of Ubuntu which is about communally expressed humanity. This is what differentiates it from other kinds of humanisms - this form of Ubuntu is what Mandela exemplifies and why the world loves him. It is what I miss about Mandela. I miss the way he stood for what he spoke about and how his leadership, his politics, policies and personal actions were congruent with the ethical call of lived Ubuntu.

That being said, just because the timing of the Social Cohesion Summit may have been somewhat opportunistic for the Department of Arts and Culture, doesn't mean that a senior writer like Donaldson at the Sunday Times can simply say, "let's just stop talking about it (Ubuntu) altogether. Never mention it again." That is like denying a core part of the spiritual heritage of our country. It's like asking Christians never again to mention the bible, Muslims the Koran, or Jewish people the Torah.

All societies and religions live with corruption and hypocrisy - with light and shadow and many of us fall short of the living the values we espouse. But our country is what it is because we have woven the golden thread of Ubuntu into our history and into our constitution and sometimes in miraculous moments of love, joy and mutual respect.

Sometimes Ubuntu may feel like an elusive needle in in a haystack of poor delivery and corruption, rather than a prominent golden thread but it is core to our national heritage. Is such vitriol expressed by Donaldson about Ubuntu really necessary?

Our book, refers to the idea that decolonization means much more than the dismantling of colonial rule or apartheid (see here). It is territory that all of us potentially traverse: colonisers and the colonized; consciously or unconsciously; willingly or not. Ideally it involves shifts in our imagination, and our mental maps and most importantly cracks open our hearts. This is the ongoing work of healing our nation, manufacturing the glue which brings social cohesion closer to being a lived experience rather than an elusive sociological term in government reports and World Bank social indicators.

Much has transformed and is still changing in South Africa, yet the ghosts of colonization hover, the realities of arrogance linger. Its residues often live on in the emotional landscapes of the children and grandchildren of both the coloniser and the colonised. Sometimes they are transcended. Sometimes these residues scorch our collective landscape openly and vividly as fires of passion as witnessed during the strong responses to Speargate or in some of the cynical responses to the recent Social Cohesion Summit.

Rather than heeding Donaldson's call to stop talking about it, I say, it is just the opposite - there is a strong need to understand Ubuntu fully, and for all of us to live it, is required desperately now. After writing about Ubuntu for more than a decade, it is my sober belief that it remains a deeply misunderstood term.

Rory Pilosoffs' book, "The Unbearable Whiteness of Being" was recently launched in Cape Town. The book documents some of the reasons for the stubborn attitudes of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Dr Brian Raftopolus one of the commentators present at the Cape Town launch on June 28 2012, spoke of the hardening of attitudes that became Zimbabwe's fate. I worry about the insulting attitudes of journalists such as Donaldson and the role this plays in hardening our attitudes.

However much our politicians may seek to build political capital at every opportunity, there is still a need for in depth education on Ubuntu and for exploring how we can live it every day. So many people do not understand the multi-layered complexity of Ubuntu because of our collective failure to educate those who do not understand.

Part of living with the consciousness of Ubuntu, requires a recalibration of western horizons in light of the conscious and unconscious collusion with ongoing asymmetries of power and privilege and frankly, western arrogance. It also requires that our government and civil society walk the talk of the Freedom Charter and aspire to the values underlying our constitution.

South Africa is set to remain the country with the highest income inequality, in 2020. . Rather than growing our cynicism, we need to keep deepening the way we interrogate and open ourselves to feel the layers of frozenness and choose to melt into greater humanity. Mr Donaldson, I highly recommend some reading for you, in particular, Reuel Khoza's book, Attuned Leadership

 and our book, Personal Growth African Style.

Both speak, unashamedly to Ubuntu as a force which could humanize the world. And don't nail Dr Luli Callinicos, Mr Donaldson! She was a rapporteur summarizing the input of the people in the commission she served at the Summit.

Journalists are essential watchdogs in society but such destructive cynicism in my view, takes this role too far.

Is Ubuntu eroding and losing its currency in South Africa? Yes. But what stops Ubuntu from taking deeper root in South Africa? My observation is that the media is sadly often hostile to the word. In addition, lack of ethics, corruption and political manipulation amongst our politicians might be a contributing factor for increasing cynicism, but it is not the whole story and it is important to separate the political story from the individual and collective work we have to do as citizens to decolonize our minds and open our hearts.

Ubuntu in our country won't work, without a significant amount of continuous dialogue, listening to each other and thousands of individual and communal actions to correct the social and economic imbalances of the past. The shared and continued commitment to the inner psychological work that needs to be done is a long journey.

 In this regard, I welcome the refreshing article by a younger voice, Alistair McKay, who spoke to the work that whites still need to do. This is not a popular stand, but a necessary stance and I hope similar courageous voices will follow suit. These are constructive voices, not destructive.

I am glad that Dr Mamphela Ramphele has started a much needed Citizen's movement which acknowledges our shared woundedness and seeks to heal them on a large scale. We need to open up conversation, not close it down. We need to soften attitudes with compassion and not sanction the hardening of attitudes we see in the recent article by Anderson. Naming and healing our wounds in the spirit of Ubuntu will need remain ongoing attention and energy however difficult, however uncomfortable.

Rev Frank Chikane, another rapporteur at the Summit, reminded us of the need to listen, and the likelihood of discomfort. Our ability to build up our country will be constrained because of the narrowing discourse of failed mental and emotional decolonization reinforce each other. If one racial group or class shuts down and hardens attitudes, the other one hardens as well.

There is a need for widespread, well designed educational initiatives to decolonize our minds, for everybody, irrespective of ethnicity, class or skin colour. There is an ongoing need to cleanse the residues of "colonial histories" that stubbornly cling to the crevices of our minds, in the frozen parts of our hearts, in the loud torrents and silent tributaries of our emotions.

Part of the decolonization process needs to happen in our curricula at all levels of schooling - primary, secondary and tertiary; in our workplaces, in places of worship and in civil society. The challenge of building a nation lies in our ongoing commitment to look at what binds the intermingled interconnected roots of our histories.

 Ubuntu is much more sustainable when we take the journey to the depths, individually and together. Rather than ignoring it, we must continue to hold the promise of Ubuntu in our grasp, learn about it earnestly, embrace it, and not demean it. In this way we make and remake the glue of our national identity. By reclaiming Ubuntu, refining it and living it, we can co-create a country that flourishes, build a citizenship which makes our public servants accountable, all of us accountable as agents of a more humane society.

Ubuntu can only flourish, once it is applied effectively both at the structural and socio-economic level and embedded in the personal level. Ubuntu, if we choose to, can be brought to life in schools, in practical social and economic justice and in delivery of services to all South Africans and in every day interactions with fellow South Africans. But we will all need to fight for it, to want to live it collectively and congruently.

Barbara Nussbaum is a former member of the Ubuntu Panel, which was part of the National Heritage Council of South Africa. She has co-authored Personal Growth African Style, with Sudhanshu Palsule and Velaphi Mhkize(Penguin 2010). She continues to be a champion of Ubuntu in her work as lecturer and coach, in South Africa and abroad. Earlier articles she has written on Ubuntu published internationally can be accessed on her website:

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