Liberalism and Ubuntu: Better together

Jon Cayzer says Gareth van Onselen's views on the matter echo the tone of the ideological jihadist


The notion that liberalism is incompatible with notions of ‘Ubuntu' and ‘community' was recently reformulated by political analyst, Gareth van Onselen.

His exposition merited the welcome and overdue debate that unfolded in the public square. While there are valid criticisms of the intellectual constraints of ‘Ubuntu' and ‘community', the complaint that they are both incompatible with liberalism does not pass muster.

If, to borrow the title of Jeanette Winterson's famous novel, oranges are not the only fruit, Van Onselen's brand of liberalism is not the only one on the market.

This debate largely turns on defining Ubuntu and liberalism.

Contextualising Ubuntu within ‘liberation' narratives and constitutionalism

Ubuntu is the most problematic to define. It is loosely based on the African proverb ‘a person is a person through other persons'. The pioneering theologian of reconciliation and chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Desmond Tutu has been one of Ubuntu's most enthusiastic proponents: "Ubuntu says I am human only because you are human. If I undermine your humanity, I dehumanize myself".

Drawing on disparate notions of community, reciprocity, and respect for human dignity, Ubuntu famously appeared in the preamble of the 1993 interim constitution: "there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation ... a need for Ubuntu but not for victimization".

Nelson Mandela embodied this theme through his public speeches by stressing the Hegelian notion of reconciliation. He viewed the formation of South Africa's multiracial democracy as a synthesis of the thesis of apartheid and the antithesis of the anti-apartheid struggle.

This Mandela best articulated via Hegel's philosophical vision of reconciliation between the master and his slave. They both find liberation through respect for each other.

I mention this because it begs the question of why Van Onselen's analysis forfeited the opportunity to set the historical scene prior to 1994.

If he had, it would have exposed the raw fact that the uneasy relationship between liberalism and Ubuntu is both historically rooted in; and is a function of South Africans' struggle for racial equality.

After two decades of political freedom, it is easy to forget that old-style liberals like Edgar Brookes, Margaret Ballinger, and even Alan Paton and Helen Suzman had the ‘luxury' - as whites - of espousing a universalism that was confidently grounded in what Jan Smuts once referred to as ‘the ancient homelands of constitutional liberty in the West'.

Meanwhile, the brutal and daily assault on the humanity of black South Africans meant that - to use another famous title by W. E. B. Du Bois - ‘the souls of black folk' themselves were on the line, not just notions of liberty, human rights, and democratic governance.

A more credible analysis by Van Onselen would have been to openly acknowledge that the struggle for freedom in South Africa has always been more deeply personal to non-whites. But, understandably, his version of liberalism is, in many respects, tied to Western identity.

Ubuntu, as far as I can tell, is a noble attempt to overcome the soul-crushing legacy of apartheid and restore some dignity to black South Africa. To use John F. Kennedy's elegiac tribute to the cleansing power of poetry, Ubuntu clearly has given many people ‘hope with which to overcome despair'. And it is much more in legal substance.

Van Onselen conveniently overlooks the fact that Ubuntu is not only part of the South African Constitution; it is also foundational to the jurisprudence principles undergirding the work of the Constitutional Court. No document springs into being ex nihilo.

He also fails to acknowledge that there is a significant literature on Ubuntu in the realm of legal scholarship.

Pierre De Vos, a constitutional law professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has written extensively on the compatibility of Ubuntu and South Africa's liberal constitution.

Albie Sachs, a former judge of the Constitutional Court and key player in the process of drafting South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, is a leading advocate of African notions of Ubuntu as fundamental to the country's approach to and practise of justice. Sachs happens to be white.

The weaknesses of Ubuntu

Ubuntu's power and usefulness to affect reconciliation and tolerance, however, cannot detract from its drawbacks. Here, Van Onselen's case is at its most forceful.

On this site, one of his counter debaters argued that the liberal credentials of Barack Obama, and the Orange Book politician, Nick Clegg, are never questioned because they talk about the American spirit and British identity. However, it is too big a jump to use this to support the claim that liberalism and Ubuntu are compatible because it is an asymmetrical comparison.

The problem is that many of Ubuntu's supposed proponents are not defining it as some kind of ‘South African-ness'. But, rather, they are mobilising it to define blacks in South Africa (the majority) over and against the minority constituent populations (white, Indian, coloured).

This is to work against the same national spirit that Ubuntu is meant to inspire. If Ubuntu devalues other traditions of liberal humanism in order for black South Africans to recover their human dignity, it is to upend both its meaning and how Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, et alia tried to exemplify it.

Liberalism is a broad church

In his quest for doctrinal purity, Van Onselen's mind seems closed to other liberal ideas and thinkers. The canon of liberalism's thoughts and ideas is far wider than, say, Montesquieu, Locke, John Stuart Mill or, more recently, Rawls. From the Manchester school of liberalism to the communitarian liberalism of Barack Obama, liberalism is a broad church.

In Great Britain, the Labour Party broke away from the Liberal Party, which, in turn, had broken away from the Whigs. The salient point is that all political philosophies overlap untidily with others. Liberalism is no exception.

Like in the physical world where the elements wind, water and ice whittle down the hardest granite, liberalism is subject to the forces of time, change and context.

When one reads Van Onselen's article and tweets on Ubuntu, it is striking how they echo the tone and timbre of the ideological jihadist. Blinkered by certitude, they do not tolerant the mixing of ideas, pragmatic policies or attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions.

This myopic vision of the individual in society bolsters the view that the big difference in the world today is between ‘open' and ‘closed' minds.

Even if his formulaic definition of what - and what does not - constitute ‘liberalism' was correct, it would clash with the life-stories and the experiences of millions of people.

Liberalism must connect with people's emotions and realities

Most people also see the world through an emotional lens. This is not - as he would swiftly counter - to suggest that rational beings are slaves to emotions. But they do inform our perception of reality; help shape our worldviews, and how we relate to one another. And here, as a liberal, I only dare speak for myself.

If I do not, on some emotional level, feel the tug of ‘Ubuntu' or ‘community' - ill-defined as they are - I would not have dedicated the greater part of my adult life to working in very modest positions in South Africa's political opposition. My reward has, in fact, been seeing the power of these two ideas at work.  

On an emotional level I understand that, as an individual, I have always possessed an enquiring mind, a free spirit, and a desire to ‘get ahead'. But it took others to help me unlock that latent potential.

My simple point is that I could not have done it alone; other people - most especially in the political community to which I now belong - lent me life-changing opportunities along the way. Yes, as an individual I took them up. But other people threw me the ropes - and, in one case, a lifeline.

Social liberalism's vision of the community

Like Van Onselen would, I subscribe to the liberal belief that individual outcomes, like players in the market-economy, will not be equal. Some trees will, and should, grow taller than others. But my point of departure would be that even the strongest sapling needs to be watered and tended - irrespective of how tall it might grow - or atrophy.

To take the African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child" forward, more often than not, it takes the building blocks of the community to make manifest the freedom of the individual. I also cherish the liberal's push for incentives and opportunities, but for different reasons.

Without the ambitions and resources of the individual and the collective, the social liberal knows that the state will not have the resources to do as much as it must to deliver social justice for all.

In the American context, this conviction animated President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and President Barack Obama's brand of progressive liberalism today. One safely assumes that this same sense of esprit de corps animated the thinkers in the provincial government of the Western Cape when they settled upon the inspirational leitmotif ‘better together'.

In 2013, most of us who designate ourselves as social liberals have, dare I use the word, congregated, in one particular political party. We truly believe that not only are we better together, we can do more together.

Here it is relevant to note that a community does not only designate a group of people or geographical location. Harvard professor, Stanley Hoffman also speaks of the ‘community of values'.

Van Onselen's abstraction would have been of less significance if, over the last two decades, sections of South African liberalism had not been heavily influenced by the neo liberal nostrums of the new right. These extreme expressions of individualism were embodied supremely by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain. The overemphasis on the individual owes more to this school of thought than it does to contemporary liberal thought and practice.

But the new right's purveyors of Hayek and the Chicago School of Economics have been in rapid retreat since the near collapse of the global financial system in 2008. And, here too, I sense their most zealous evangelists have been in retreat in the most prominent liberal party in South Africa because of the rebalancing of the ‘individual in society' question. The push for greater diversity and inclusivity has been extended to not only elective representation, but to the realm of ideas and thoughts, too.

A vision of the public square for the future

Since before the founding of the Union in 1910, South Africans, who for centuries had lived together were divided by ideological barriers enshrined in law. The history and collective memory of our country's past still retains an iron grip on the psyche of many South Africans, especially those who bore the brunt of the violence and dehumanisation.

Nevertheless, the persistent growth of opposition party support among people from all walks of life augurs a much-anticipated realignment of politics in South Africa. Such a shift necessarily requires the proponents of all freedom-loving South Africans to come out of their laagers.

While liberals may take a more individual rights based approach to questions of ordering society and fostering national unity, their views are no less indebted to a particular history and identity than are the communal ideas of Ubuntu. Nor are their aims of creating a more just, humane, and equal opportunity society incompatible.

The continued success of South Africa depends on being able to acknowledge our past, and to build a better and more united future.

If politics is for the purpose of collective action, like any other form of human fellowship, it is pointless to cling to pristine ideologies that fail to connect with people's lived experience, to stir their hearts and energize their souls.

Policing the boundaries, after all, reflects neither the spirit of liberalism, Ubuntu, nor any other political philosophy that places a premium on human dignity.

As a distinctly African brand of humanism, Ubuntu draws upon the best traditions of African history, language and ideals to uplift the value of the person within society.

When liberals engage with Ubuntu's best traditions, we will discover that not only are we better together, we can do more together.

Jon Cayzer was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2010 & 2011. He is a social liberal, and has held various staffer positions for the South African political opposition since 2000.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter