umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu– kind of the opposite to each one for himself. With this sort of profound philosophy in our culture, how have we allowed a culture of personal gain to take root so firmly throughout society? Why has Africa as a whole gone so badly wrong if this is a core belief – and I have no reason to believe it is not?
a person is a person through other people
What I have observed in seeing this belief in action is that many interpret it narrowly – that the “other people” are “their own”, narrowly interpreted tribally or even to close friends and family. Thus, for example, someone assumes the presidency of a country and immediately everyone close to them puts their nose to the trough – our turn to eat, a phrase originating out of corruption in Kenya.
What is missing is a greater sense of nationality, that this concept does not just apply to your own, but to everyone in the greater community.
This omission is particularly obscured by the myth of Pan-Africanism, the notion that Africa is a sociopolitical whole embracing Ubuntu, as the concept is more widely known (with fewer hard syllables for foreigners). Yet the reality is far different – tribalism persists, we have wars, civil wars, ethnic cleansing and xenophobia.
Another problem is that the colonial and apartheid systems co-opted traditional leaders into a police-state system of governance. Any democratic tendencies that may have existed in pre-colonial times were subverted to a system of total obedience to authority.
What is to be done?
We need to go back to traditional values and re-conceptualize them as applying to a modern democratic order.
Ubuntu in this new order means the opposite to everyone for himself (or herself). But it also does not mean look after your own. It means pursue your life goals by pursuing the greater good.
Tied into this is escaping the mindset of cowed citizens of a police state. Sadly, when colonial and apartheid powers retreated, it was all to easy for liberators to keep their subjects in a subservient state. After all, their leaders are now in charge, so what is there to fight for? But that is a very shallow definition of what a leader is, and derives from the subversion of traditional leadership by colonialism and apartheid.
A leader should be respected by virtue of earning respect, not simply virtue of the office they hold. A leader should represent the will of the people, allowing some latitude for a genuine leader to move ahead of the people on occasion, but ultimately to bring them along to the new position. In a democracy, a leader who loses respect and credibility can and should be voted out of office.
None of this contradicts traditional African values; rather the notion of Ubuntu modernized to a democratic order is a uniquely African contribution to human society, and a project worth pursuing. Failure to adapt the concept of leadership to a democratic order on the hand entrenches colonial and apartheid power relations, and leaves the ordinary citizen unable to benefit from liberation beyond the symbolism of changing the complexion of those in power.