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Worrying erosion of Ubuntu in South Africa

Nov 10 2017 06:58
Nceku Nyathi

AMID the tide of bad news in South Africa currently, the latest crime statistics is another high-water mark.

South Africans learned recently that the murder rate has increased by 1.8%, with a percentage increase of 22.3% for the period between 2011/2012 and 2016/2017.

On presenting these numbers in Parliament, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula said: “We must not see these statistics as pure numbers. Behind the numbers are real feelings, real lives, real hurt, real harm, real losses, deaths, feelings of unsafety.”

Outrage about crime is spreading on social media as well as in the traditional media with emotions running high, threatening to polarise communities even more. And last week, thousands of people across the country took to the streets to take part in what civic group AfriForum described as the biggest protest ever against farm murders.

The #BlackMonday march sparked controversy over its alleged racial characterisation of crime and for stoking of racial hatred.

Against a backdrop of political uncertainty, allegations of state capture and instability leading up to the ruling party’s elective conference in December, we are seeing how the principles of Ubuntu are eroded more and more every day, when it could be used to bring people together and unite them towards a common goal – like finding solutions to the problems plaguing communities.

Advancing the ideals of Ubuntu in a nation that is increasingly fractured along identity lines, marked by anxiety and characterised by reality and interplays of power, inefficiency and corruption, is an ideal worth pursuing – and one we seem to have lost sight of.

As a political instrument and guide towards making policy choices in South Africa, Ubuntu gained a strong currency at the end of apartheid. Considering that internationally apartheid had been condemned as a crime against humanity, Ubuntu offered a way to right the balance – towards non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy, with a need to restore human dignity.

Nobody represented the essence of Ubuntu like former President Nelson Mandela who emerged from prison after 27 years with a message of forgiveness and reconciliation for all the people of the country.  

In essence, Ubuntu conceptualises what it means to be human, accentuating connectedness and a sense of responsibility towards others.

Despite the diversity of meanings of the word, various commentaries on Ubuntu seem to have firmly converged on a set of common characteristics – such as valuing others and showing compassion. It has become a catch-all term for the values of many traditional African societies and the word is indeed commonly found in the Nguni languages of Southern Africa.

This ethos is echoed in the post-apartheid government’s thinking of Batho Pele, which can be translated as “People First”. There was the sense that civil service should be caring and compassionate and an affirmation of Ubuntu.

The public service framework of the 1993 interim constitution set itself the task of overcoming the dehumanising effects of apartheid. This involved an overhaul of public service delivery while at the same time establishing a new set of norms and values to reflect a social reality in South Africa where human dignity would be affirmed.

The 1995 white paper on public service underlined this aim: “The Government of National Unity is committed to continually improving the lives of the people of South Africa by a transformed public service which is representative, coherent, transparent, efficient, accountable, and responsive to the needs of all.”

But 22 years later, these words ring hollow. The police service, one sector of public service, is not seen as caring and compassionate, nor as efficient and responsive to the needs of all. Minister Mbalula himself described police officers as “lazy” indicating his own growing frustration with the SAPS. He said South Africans were “under siege” from crime and did not feel safe in their homes or places of business.

It is difficult to reconcile the South Africa we read about today, with the country of which Nelson Mandela was president. Indeed, over the past 22 years there has been a steady breaking down of Nelson Mandela’s emphasis on human rights and the effects of it can be seen in all aspects of policy and service delivery.

There are signs that under President Jacob Zuma’s administration, the philosophy of Ubuntu has become more of a cloak than a serious commitment.

With a ruling party at war with itself, a president who is the subject of an explosive new book outlining his ties to organised crime, and seemingly random cabinet reshuffles becoming the order of the day, there appears to have been a shift away from the principles of compassion and caring that characterised the beginning of post-apartheid South Africa.

What is called for in South Africa at present is a strong dose of Ubuntu – and while this will not heal our deep socio-economic fractures and general failures in public service, it can help orient the national thinking and feeling towards harmony and healing as opposed to discontent and strife; towards building rather than tearing down.

The current leaders of this country need, once again, to affirm publicly a commitment to Batho Pele and “Putting the People First”, and act firmly to show how they are implementing this ethos. Leaders in business and civil society should be echoing such calls at every opportunity. And more than that, each and every citizen of this country needs to extend their hand to their neighbour and recognise that we are in this together.

Only by moving back, ideologically speaking, to once again embracing the caring and compassionate spirit of Ubuntu, will we be able to move forward to address South Africa’s unacceptable high crime, poor service delivery and widening inequality.

We need to find a way to make the citizens of this country feel safe in and proud of their nation again.

  • Dr Nceku Nyathi is a Senior Lecturer at the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business. This article draws on a paper that he co-authored with Mzukisi Qobo on Ubuntu, Foreign Policy and radical uncertainty in South African and the World published on the AfricaPortal.

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