The ideas and thoughts expressed within this blog are not the views or opinions of WorldTeach nor the Namibia Ministry of Education, but rather my personal views.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

African Ubuntu

“The Apartheid Museum is depressing. I can’t see how people go there.” These are the words of a South African with whom I was dining last year. (I should note that from the early 1900s until 1990, Namibia was a colony of South Africa, was then called Southwest Africa, and also suffered through apartheid laws and policies.)

Just as I can in many parts of the United States of America, I note that the subject of race and discussions of segregation and racial abuse are overwhelmingly avoided in both South Africa and Namibia. I have had a few frank talks with my fellow countrymen and with locals in each of the other two countries, but by and large, in the year 2010, most people I observe (in peron or via various media outlets) find the notion of race-based discrimination fairly idiotic and not worthy of discussion. In many instances, past atrocities committed in the name of race, specifically “white” violence against “Blacks,” are so perverse and out of the realm of current imagination that many fail to believe such inhumanity ever existed at all.

We are INDIVIDUALS, part of the human race, right? This is great, logical, and shows progress in each nation; but, it is a completely opposite way of thinking for many, and flips history on its head. It also fails to produce sensitivity to the realities of the impacts of past racial oppression (educational inequities, ghettoization, disproportionate incarceration rates of certain groups, self-hate, political apathy, hatred and distrust of others, struggles for a sense of belonging, and the list goes on and on.) Without understanding and acknowledging our history, we can never truly move forward and have a real sense of togetherness.

I am glad we are thinking and acting a little more like humans with sense now; but, I must ask, How does logic all of a sudden just appear and become the new status quo of a generation? In the United States, attending a mob lynching of a Black man was once an acceptable family affair for some Southern Whites. Violence against Blacks for the crime of simply being Black was legal within the lifetime of many of us still participating in this grand life experiment. And now, everything is fine? And we should equalize white racism with black racism? In the countries I mention, Blacks never spent hundreds of years oppressing and brutally breaking the spirit of Whites in the name of Black superiority or Black domination. The reverse, however, can be said about Whites. All racism needs to end, but different forms of racism and the different roots of racism must be understood in order to effectively deal with it. Otherwise, the potential for resentment to brew is high.

I recently finished reading, “The Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. I also recently watched the movie, “In My Country,” a fictional story revolving around actual trials of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an entity created to help address apartheid-era crimes and suffering after the fall of apartheid. Many elements of each piece stood out at me and I took notes on more than a few occasions.

The notion of “ubuntu” was a key element of the movie and I believe of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ubuntu can be described as an “African” ideology/philosophy that encourages compassion, forgiveness, and a sense of oneness. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in the spirit of “Ubuntu,” perpetrators of crimes committed during apartheid were offered the opportunity to fully disclose the details of their actions and were made to face their victims and also hear their victims’ stories. If the crime was deemed to be “politically motivated,” the perpetrator was given full amnesty for their crimes and was “forgiven.”

The label, “African,” also stood out both in the book and in the movie. In the book, the term “African” was used by Mandela to refer to Blacks. Distinctions such as “Whites,” “Indians,” and “Coloured” were used to describe non-Blacks, seemingly regardless of their country of birth or family history. In the movie, however, a white journalist/writer in post-apartheid South Africa referred to herself as “African,” especially in pushing forward the African philosophy and seemingly propagandist agenda of Ubuntu. As “Africans,” she said, “we forgive.” It seemed a rather convenient identity to have once the tables of power had turned.

The controversy around amnesty for criminals was definitely present. At a press conference in the movie, one journalist asked that since the majority of the victims were Black, if it could be said that Blacks had a special capacity for forgiveness. After the question, another cynical journalist commented that it could rather be said that Whites had a special capacity to get away with murder.

In his book, Mandela spoke of having private meetings with government officials to discuss a peace plan while he was incarcerated in Pollsmoor Prison. He didn’t even tell his close friends and fellow leaders about his intentions. In my first opinion and admittedly without conducting much research, these meetings seem to be where the concept of Ubuntu truly gained its power and growth in contemporary South Africa.

Outside of the prison all around the country, people were upset, violence was on the rise, and justice was sought as an accompaniment to future freedom. Post-apartheid South Africa could have been extremely bloody and unpleasant for all involved, with Blacks seeking revenge, reparations, and other compensation for their inferior treatment under apartheid law. I’m just an under-informed American observing after the facts, but Mandela’s release, the exoneration of other political prisoners, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission all seemed like strategic and necessary tools in saving lives and attempting to keep South Africa from being burned to the ground. The approach of full disclosure and accompanying amnesty, however, seemed contrived. What is even more sad is that Black-on-Black crime still seems to be a problem. Where are the compassion, forgiveness, and “ubuntu” in that?

We can and will get along, but it must be done honestly. I do hope we get to genuine understanding and interracial harmony; but, I do not want it under false pretenses or with a sense of conscious or unconscious denial. We must visit the “depressing” museums, engage in the awkward discussions, see the images that haunt the minds of our brothers and sisters, and find ways to help individuals relieve the silent deadweights and emotional burdens of our racist and torturous pasts. Schools and governments must do their part to educate. And we must continue to educate ourselves. The Long Walk to Freedom has not yet ended In any of Our Countries.

Oh, and I do believe that race is a social construct that has less to do with biology and exact science and more to do with politics. Because of how and how long notions of race have been perpetuated around the world, however, I believe that it will take quite a while to completely change our ways of thinking about it.


  1. Is African a race? A nationality?

    Is a Caucasian born and raised on African soil 'African'? All these questions have no concrete answer, which just make the politics of race easy to muddy and twist to one own's agenda.

    The world would be so nice...if there were no people!

  2. "Is a Caucasian born and raised on African soil 'African'?". You can easily reply to your own question if you just reverse it: is a Negroid born on European soil "European" ? Maybe... Maybe not. To me, nothing is automatic. If I had been born in Japan of Algerian parents and I adopted all the values and way of living of an Algerian and none of the Japanese, if I did not dearly love the country and did not contribute to its progress in any way, I would not be a true Japanese. On the other hand, if I adopted the basic values and way of living of a Japanese, if I dearly loved the country and contributed to its progress, I would be a Japanese. Different skin colour and physical attributes, sure, but my heart would be Jap. To me, values, way of life, love of the country and just how much I'm willing to contribute to its development (not just economic) is what makes the difference.
    "African soil" is quite a vague term. Take South-Africa, for example. Is it similar to, say, Liberia or Congo ? To me, not at all. Many of the Afrikaners have been there for some 400 years and those of British origins have been there for 200 to 300 years and they have been the leaders in the building up of that country from scratch and into what it still is: the powerhouse of Sub-Saharan Africa. They dearly love their country and most of them have only one passport (nationality): South-African. They have a set of values and a way of life that is very different to other African countries. On the other hand, many of the Blacks have been there for much less longer (nowadays, several millions got there only in the past few years and are still arriving everyday). The difference in numbers is mainly due to a much higher birth rate and, over the past 18 years, to illegal immigrants. So... Is the white South-African "African" ? To me, yes. Not the same African at all as most of the Blacks in South-Africa and in the other African countries but he is still... An African. Are many of the Africans "South-African" ? To me, no. Does the land make a nation or does a nation make the land ?

  3. Interesting discussion. I'm going to find time to come back to this discussion and comment. For now all I was looking for when I came across the site is the Namibian word for Ubuntu as it is said in SA and Botho as we say it in Botswana. Kindly respond to kmere@4site.co.bw if for some reason I fail to come back to your site. Ke lebogile..! (Thanks)

    1. Namibia specifically Oshiwambo speaking people supports Ubuntu by saying Umbuntu, there is a saying in Oshiwambo that states "Omuhenda nandjila iha tindilwa omulalo' (in English means "a traveler can't be denied accommodation") this matches Nelson Mandela phrases about Umbuntu (in Oshiwambo)


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