Many of you know that I am South African. Africa has a way of never letting one go. Talk to anyone who has been there. It almost haunts your soul - it is alive, eclectic, colorful, dramatic, hopeful and yet also devastated in some ways. Above all it is my home. What else matters, really? It is not uncommon for the average citizen of the world to look at Africa's politics and laugh - known for bribery, dictators and confusion it could be easy to miss something. South Africa has the fingerprints of Bishop Desmond Tutu all over it. It has the shadow of Nelson Mandela falling all around it. Can you imagine. Two of the great statesmen of the world. Nothing swells my heart quite so much as being able to talk with pride about the influence of two such leaders. Yet...
I am troubled right now. Violence has long been a part of life there. Yet, so has a wonderful life style. Political tension is just always at a simmer. Yet, so has been some of the most incredible reconciliation ever known to humanity. Poverty is around every corner. Yet, so is unbelievable wealth. People are dying of aids and other more preventable disease. Yet, research that is changing the world is also pouring out of South Africa. Some go hungry. Others enjoy some of the best culinary experiences on the planet. Contrasts. Disequilibrium. Hope and Fear coexist on a daily basis. I am most troubled currently by the attacks on immigrants that are pouring into South Africa from other troubled African countries. The random Zimbabwean street vendor that is trying to make a living is the new target. Refugees or immigrants seeking a better life have always been high risk, but this xenophobia has reached such epic proportions in South Africa that it is getting international attention.
And in my idealistic little world it should be different there. What about Ubuntu? This is a country that claims Ubuntu theolgoy. In trying to define Ubuntu, Bishop Desmond Tutu has said, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” It has roots in an old Zulu maxim “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – a person is a person through other persons. In the African context it speaks to the idea that the person one is to become through divine design happens by behaving among others in worthy and respectful ways. Those who uphold these principles will in death also achieve unity with those still living. There is an inextricable bond between humanity, ancestors and the Supreme Being. Inseparable as Christianity and Ubuntu are it is impossible to miss how African ancestral influences and Eastern mysticism have shaped his theology.
At its very basic level, this African belief articulates a respect and compassion for others. It is both descriptive (being in community with others) and prescriptive (how to be in community with others). The term Ubuntu then functions as both a factual description and a rule of conduct or social ethic. It becomes very apparent that this theology sees community as an essential aspect to personhood. Grounded in the deep sense of community that is intrinsic to African life this is no surprise. Tutu is quoted as saying, “we can be human only in community, in koinonia, in peace.” He shows that human beings are defined not by their race but by their createdness in God’s own image. It is this that brings value and dignity to all people. Some have even used the word “humanness” to define Ubuntu. This is accurate but very different from what one may understand as Western Humanism. Where Humanism will deny or underestimate the importance of the “religious”, Ubuntu is wholly dependent on it. The spiritual can not be separated in life or death in the African experience.
As a social, political and religious ethic, consensus plays a central role in Ubuntu. Traditional African democracy is a system far different to Western Democracy. It often ignores Majority Rule in favor of the pursuit of reconciliation and consensus. It usually takes the form of lengthy discussions and meetings. Hours and hours of talking between community leaders is a prerequisite. Every person gets an equal chance to talk until some kind of agreement or consensus is reached. Western intervention to bring resolution to various issues in Africa has often disrupted this organic process and the results have been disastrous. The African term “simunye” translated as “we are one” or “unity is strength” can be found in the media, literature, and the common vernacular. While Bishop Tutu has frequently spoken out against the tyrannical rule and dictatorship of some African countries, it must be noted that within the framework of “consensus above all”, people can become exploited in order to enforce group solidarity. While Ubuntu seeks to always elevate human dignity, it has a potentially dark side in terms of its demands for conformity and loyalty to the group. I think understanding this gives the observer greater insight into the often misgoverned and mismanaged countries of the African continent.
In his role in the rebuilding of post-Apartheid South Africa, Bishop Tutu has modeled a version of Ubuntu that has authentic respect for human dignity and honest appreciation for diversity and difference. He is credited with giving the new South Africa the name “The Rainbow Nation.” Behind this term is the belief that individuals in their distinctiveness are regarded firstly because they reflect the image of the creator and secondly because dignifying humanity is essential for peace and thus when all the diverse peoples and their gifts come to the table, a rainbow is created. There can be harmony while respecting diversity.
If consensus is so paramount it may make one wonder how to reconcile this spirit with the very real violence that still plagues South Africa. I do not think Ubuntu will explain away all struggles. However, I think if one considers the unique manner in which South Africa transitioned from a country of Apartheid to multi-party democracy it is evident that something more than smart politics was at play. The emergence of solidarity and an ethos of reconciliation in the midst of the transition led to cohesive values in a country previously defined as splintered at best. Crime or violence aside, it is not hard to see examples of the spirit of consensus and mutual care as one studies how African families care for one another, how the poor are cared for by the poor, how older generations take seriously the teaching of younger generations.
Notwithstanding his previous accomplishments, it is in the very emerging of a new South Africa that Bishop Tutu’s impact has been most felt. Out of Ubuntu theology he held out the goal of consensus and reconciliation in order for the people of South Africa to heal and be more fully human. As Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he convened the Commission into three sub categories in order to provide a traveling forum for people to tell their stories of human rights abuses during the Apartheid years. The commission’s intention above all was to grant amnesty for crimes perpetrated based on political actions during that time. Bishop Tutu did not want a war tribunal, but a forum for healing. In an article entitled, “Why to Forgive” he says, “forgiveness is not turning a blind eye to wrongs; true reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring healing.” Stories were told of secret acts done by both the Apartheid government and liberation forces that resulted in abuses. No one was exempt. After a three year period, hundreds had been given amnesty, thousands of people had the opportunity to be heard, many families of victims and perpetrators forgave each other and a report was prepared. The extensive document was presented to the Government and in its final recommendations made motions for national apologies by previous Heads of State, for Memorials to victims, and very significantly and most human, for opportunities for history and the stories to be retold. In the midst of a very institutional structure, Bishop Tutu managed the process with heart and the human touch right up until the concluding pages of the Commission Report. In an interview about the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Bishop Tutu is quoted as saying,
“I have come to realize the extraordinary capacity for evil that all of us have, because we have now heard the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and there have been revelations of horrendous atrocities that people have committed. Any and every one of us could have perpetrated those atrocities. The people who were perpetrators of the most gruesome things didn't have horns, didn't have tails. They were ordinary human beings like you and me. That's the one thing. Devastating! But the other, more exhilarating than anything that I have ever experienced -- and something I hadn't expected -- to discover that we have an extraordinary capacity for good. People who suffered untold misery, people who should have been riddled with bitterness, resentment and anger come to the Commission and exhibit an extraordinary magnanimity and nobility of spirit in their willingness to forgive, and to say, "Hah! Human beings actually are fundamentally good." Human beings are fundamentally good. The aberration, in fact, is the evil one, for God created us ultimately for God, for goodness, for laughter, for joy, for compassion, for caring.”
Nkosi Sikeleli-Afrika (God Bless Africa)!