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WHAT DOES UBUNTU/COMPASSION MEAN IN CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICA?

Introduction

I chose the title of this Lecture almost a year ago because I have become increasingly aware that humanity is at a crossroad.  Our own country – South Africa – is at a crossroad.  We have the opportunity to respond to the multiple crises we face: inequalities and conflicts; ill-health and  pandemics; climate change and other catastrophes in a manner that enables us to emerge on the other side as a better version of whom we are today. 

 

Our Discussion today will focus on two Questions:

 

1.   What Does it mean to be Human?

2.   How can Humanity re-embrace the Essence of Being Human?

 

 

What Does it Mean to be Human?

We as Africans do not value enough the wisdom and richness of our heritage as a people of the cradle of Humanity.  Human beings evolved in Africa in the wild surrounded by animals and other living forms.  We are relatively physically weak and most vulnerable beings than our animal cousins, but our brain capacity to process complex inputs soon helped us understand that our survival depended on banding together and taking care on one another. 

 

That wisdom is called Ubuntu in Bantu languages, Omenala/Iwa/Suban in other languages in other parts of the continent.  Ubuntu is more complex than the conventional saying: “I am Because You are.”  This simplistic understanding reduces Ubuntu to the ‘transactional’ level in relationship.  The deeper meaning of Ubuntu reflects the philosophical understanding that human beings are quintessentially  relational.  The essence of being human is relational.  Humans cannot exist outside of relationships with others.  We are inextricably  interconnected and interdependent within the web of life.   

 

The COVID pandemic opened our eyes to this essence.  Isolation imposed by the pandemic made us appreciate the importance of human relationships.  Despite the lack of access to vaccines and sophisticated health care for millions of Africans across our country and the continent, they did not die in the millions predicted by epidemiologists.  Scientists are still struggling to understand what the nature of the protective factor is for the millions of poor Africans who survived COVID.  More and more scholars are tending to believe that Ubuntu played a large role in protecting poor vulnerable people against sure death.  People in villages took care of the elderly and infirm, even total strangers.  It is now increasingly recognised that human beings are at the healthiest, happiest and most successful when in loving supportive relationships. 

 

Africa’s wisdom continues to nurture many indigenous communities scattered across the globe. Indigenous communities have become the best custodians of the few high value habitats that keep Earth’s ecological balance in a good enough state to sustain life as we know it.  It is estimated that indigenous communities who still adhere to their original cultures and traditions constitute only 4% of the global population, yet protect more than 80% of essential habitats and ecosystems around the world. 

 

Many Africans have unfortunately bought into the myths and distortions of colonial revisionist history that perpetuated the lie that Africa is a continent without history.  If that was the case, how do we explain the existence of ancient pyramids in Sudan & Egypt?  How do we explain the Great Zimbabwe ruins and Mapungubwe empire that moulded a Golden Rhino that Jan Smuts and his colonial colleagues hid at the University of Pretoria museum until the 1990s when it became public knowledge?

 

Sadly, the history taught in our schools and universities continues to undermine our heritage. Our children and grandchildren’s liberation from the inferiority complexes these distortions generate, is essential to the success of our country and continent.  History taught in much of the African continent continues to erase our pre-colonial history and the richness of our heritage.

 

I would like to invite you to read a book published in 2023 as part of efforts by the High Level Group Panel of the European Union to reset the Euro/Africa Partnership entitled: Reimaging Africa by Adeyinka Adewale and Stefan Schepers published by Palgrave MacMillan.  It should be required reading for both Africans and Europeans to challenge the myths continuing to undermine the richness of Africa’s history.  Reimaging Africa details how Africa as the cradle of humanity evolved from our common hunter gatherer roots into sets of small communities, then kingdoms and later empires.  At the time of the so-called enlightenment, both Africa and Europe were at similar levels of development of their civilisations. 

 

The bifurcation of the two continents was spurred on by the industrial revolution, that redirected the focus of  human communities and societies from being and belonging, to having and dominating others to control the production and consumption of goods and services.  Colonial conquest was the result of this insatiable quest for more.  Climate change today is also spurred on by the desire for more and more.  

 

How Can Humanity Re-embrace the Essence of Being Human?

Modernity has misled us into believing a distorted interpretation of Darwin’s study of evolution.  Dr Julian Able, a palliative physician in the UK, is championing an alternative view that instead of the conclusion that species survival is driven by survival of the fittest, human history demonstrates that Survival of the Kindest is a much more plausible evolutionary driver.  His conviction is that “survival of the fittest” is a Victorian nightmare we need to wake up from.  His conviction stems from realising that terminally ill patients who are taken care of by caring compassionate people do much better than others. 

 

This realisation spurred him on to train health care workers and families of patients on palliative care to become more compassionate care for their loved ones with terminal illnesses.  He also motivated communities to rally together to create more caring neighbourhoods and towns.  Frome was the first compassionate town in the UK. Today 10 towns, including Birmingham have become compassionate places.

 

Human beings are wired for compassion – the ability to empathize with other people’s emotions; understanding what someone is experiencing.  We have the ability to understand other people’s opinions and points of view, even though they might differ from our own.  Compassion is related to empathy, but goes beyond motivating us to assist others and to alleviate suffering.

 

Imagine what our families, communities, towns and villages would be like if we were to return to the essence of our being – Ubuntu! Imagine the benefits of treating one another with compassion and creating compassionate spaces at home, at work and in. the wider society!  It is possible!  It is being done here in South Africa!  Go to any Leap School in the poorest communities such as Diepsloot, Alexander, Langa Township in Cape Town, or Ga-Rankuwa in Pretoria.  The moment you step into the Leap Schools, you experience Ubuntu at work in the classrooms and beyond. 

 

Leap Schools with a focus on self-liberation in the Life Orientation curriculum, out-perform the public school system.  The claims of 82% pass rate in 2023 after throwing more than 700 000 of the 1.2million who started school 12 years ago, makes the claim cruel and dishonest.  Leap schools get over 90% of their age cohorts to graduate from high school, with more than 70% bachelor passes with Maths, Science as well as Mother tongue, all on the Higher Grade!  It can be done for all our schools.  It will take we the people of South Africa commit to stopping the destruction of talent and theft of the futures of our children.      

 

Mamphela Ramphele

Co-Founder of ReimagineSA

27/1/2024  

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