President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the country from the Cape Town City Hall to deliver his unique-content Sona (State of the Nation Address) from a venue never used in the entire history of South Africa. He provided much food for thought concerning what he called “the battle for the soul of this country”.
What is the soul of South Africa? This question lies on contested terrain. During the first blush of our democracy, it appeared that leaders of the calibre of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu embraced the deeper elements of the national soul. The concepts of Ubuntu and reconciliation became very much key spiritual notions for the country to pursue and embrace.
It is unfortunate that their clarion call for the spirit of a rainbow nation to flourish from the seeds of a spirit of reconciliation and Ubuntu have largely been dimmed or lost along the way. Greed, corruption and gross materialism emerged in the rush for riches and the abuse of power.
The concepts and issues around our national soul have been trotted out and tossed about like casual confetti; seen, but not seriously considered for their underlying implications. Armchair theoreticians and braying politicians, most of whom have never had to seriously struggle in their lives, use “Ubuntu”, “reconciliation” and “decolonisation” as handy terms for inducing feelings of guilt rather than taking on the serious underlying challenges they each demand.
In the provocative cry to return to African authenticity, the usual examples quoted of changes that could be made are those of history; and then the examples dry up as the logic ends because it would be too inconvenient to take the matter further. None of the protagonists wish to give up their Gucci shoes, fancy cars and a range of colonial luxuries and concepts introduced by colonialists. All the hot air is popcorn for the masses; some ideas even get a few plaudits, but the lack of sustainable authenticity simply exposes the hypocrisy and superficiality of our national discourse.
I have been in the Struggle for freedom (not power) for more than 45 years. I was part of a massively successful struggle against removals and the pass laws and was involved in the various initiatives in which both black and white stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity for human rights, a struggle in which Archbishop Tutu played a key role.
What was significant is the thousands of women who emerged in key moments demonstrating their monumental spirit embodying Ubuntu.
In one significant instance, they approached the white policemen who were holding them in bondage in the infamous “no-name camp”, with beautiful songs and encouragement to let them be free to join their husbands. This demonstrable Ubuntu worked to the point where policemen began to question their own role and apartheid-inspired behaviour. So much so that many of them broke down in tears and then broke ranks. They went home — the role of holding innocent women and children hostage when their only cry was the right to live as families — was not their calling.
Similarly, Professor Nico Smit was moved to stand up and not only speak out against apartheid, but demonstrate his spirit of Ubuntu by resigning his cushy job at Stellenbosch University and taking on a humble role as an ordinary pastor in Mamelodi in solidarity with the black people’s struggle. He lived out his days in Mamelodi ministering to his congregation.
It would be difficult for me to nominate one current leader who would take such a life-changing step. Some argue that he had a guilt problem that he needed to address. This suggestion misses the point, as he could have addressed guilt in so many different ways, within his own university set-up where he had influence. He chose instead to live among the poor.
The embodiment of Ubuntu in so many of our black communities influenced so many white people during those heady days during the Struggle against apartheid. This unfortunately has now degenerated into a smelly cesspool of greed, entitlement, animosity, racism, massive corruption and abuse on a scale never seen before.
The spirit generated by our late Arch and Mandela was to set a future tone where the holders and embodiment of Ubuntu would continue to set the example of their legacies and of those wonderful ordinary women of our Struggle. This was the platform to continuously build a pathway for all in a spirit that would for years to come help toward creating a future for the country, united in its diversity, as envisaged by the concept of a rainbow nation.
The embracing of Ubuntu depends largely on the teaching of that spirit by those who manifest it in their lives — exactly as is the case with Christianity and other religions.
I recall only too well when inviting church communities in the EU to send their youth to SA to move away from rife materialism and absorb the spirit of Ubuntu in our African communities. Teams arrived annually and stayed for a year, many of them living in rural communities and even in shacks. Twenty years later, with more than 100 centres established in rural communities as an outcome, we have seen the fruits of these young people. They came as an adventure and went away with lasting impressions and changes in perceptions and behaviour with long-lasting relationships which continue to this day.
Conveying the spirit of Ubuntu is hard work — it gives one some insight into what leaders like Archbishop Tutu and Mandela had to endure. Their amazing example is what has encouraged many foreigners, whites, and a broad base of South Africans to embrace Ubuntu.
Let us get real — what challenges do we face in order to live out the legacies of our icons? In reality, we appear to have degenerated into a level of rot with such a stench that all good citizens find distasteful. The stench blots out any idea of Ubuntu. All we hear are the cries of the poor at all levels as they face the day-to-day manifestations of anti-Ubuntu behaviour at all levels of services.
Our hospitals, our schools, municipalities and police are some of the institutions where the poor experience nightmarishly poor service on a daily basis. We experience the disgraceful behaviour of many of our politicians with utterances that scream across all our media, often tinged with racism. Comments like “I did not struggle to be poor” and “our time has come to eat”, “kill the Boer”, are indicative of an attitude and spirit that has permeated our entire society and corrupted our youth.
Is this the wonderful Ubuntu that our rainbow nation, our youth and everyone else is supposed to learn from and embrace?
This is not what we expected from our Struggle — this is not what our Arch and other leaders struggled to achieve. From our new dispensation, we expected something very different from our colonial past. It is small wonder that one hears insane comments like “life under apartheid was better — then you knew what to expect.”
The poor once again bear the brunt of the suffering. Go to any institution of service and experience what the poor experience. We should fear for our young people — they are our future. Two-thirds of them are unemployed at present.
The cancer of corruption, not unlike Covid, has set in with roots that are so deep that it now engulfs the entire country, so much so that many of our youths’ main aspirations are to find ways of becoming rich quickly, knowing that fair means or foul does not matter as we are without functioning corruption busters.
The Zumas, so many politicians and their offspring, and so many thousands more kleptocrats have demonstrated the practical way to success with their mansions, fast cars, lavish braais and offshore accounts. All were achieved with impunity, accompanied by praise and applause in certain circles.
So many of our communities have degenerated into frenetic thuggery — make a quick buck by selling land illegally, join gangs or mafia-type extortion operations, and even engage in selling drugs and selling their neighbours’ children with good cooperation from certain corrupt elements within law enforcement.
Our communities have turned into a living hell of fear where women and children are targets for all types of acts of violence. Xenophobia increases exponentially as jobs become scarcer. This is not reconciliation; it is not Ubuntu in action.
What is clear is that the spirit of Ubuntu has largely disappeared with some exceptions, like the wonderful response to the July 2021 violence of KwaZulu-Natal.
I am afraid that the pathway now is the struggle toward the rediscovery of Ubuntu. It is the responsibility of everyone, not just one sector. Those who claim ownership of Ubuntu have an even bigger responsibility.
The challenge is for all of us to grow and rediscover Ubuntu through the faithful and true implementation of the values of our Constitution — “best in the world” according to the president. An honest and pragmatic meritocracy must rise from the ashes of our Parliament consumed by fire. This is possible by cultivating Ubuntu. DM