The Ubuntu cuttlefish

by The Editor

FEATURE: In response to a recent article by Andrew Donaldson, titled ‘Let’s never mention Ubuntu again’, Barbara Nussbaum (former member of the Ubuntu Panel, which was part of the National Heritage Council of South Africa) has penned a long and ultimately meaningless response. In the article below I have responded to Nussbaum in turn and provided a general critique of Ubuntu – an idea I argue is ill-defined and, besides, redundant, in light of the Bill of Human Rights.

The Ubuntu cuttlefish

By: Gareth van Onselen

11 July 2012

Rarely have I read such a vacuous collection of waffle as Barbara Nussbaum’s defence of Ubuntu, in response to Andrew Donaldson’s article ‘Let’s never mention Ubuntu again’, both published recently on Politicsweb. Truly, she manages to detract meaning from even the meaningless.

I am loath to quote Orwell on the subject – so often is his famous analogy evoked – but it is famous for a reason: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Nussbaum writes: “Part of living with the consciousness of Ubuntu, requires a recalibration of western horizons in light of the conscious and unconscious collusion with ongoing asymmetries of power and privilege and frankly, western arrogance.”

There’s enough ink there to maintain 1000 photocopy machines for 1000 years. I will tell you what is arrogant – trying to fob off a lot of pretentious nonsense as meaningful or insightful.

I am tempted to actually try and make sense of that quoted sentence, just to see what emerges. Perhaps if I paraphrase:

‘A component part of having your values infused with Ubuntu requires one to adopt a different set of ‘Western’ ideals, in response to a known and unknown (but subtly influential) collaboration between those things power and privilege do not have in common, including, by the way, Western cultural arrogance.’

What in the name of?

The truth is that the advocates of Ubuntu get away with this sort of nonsense all the time. It’s what happens when you try to make vague, abstract, and ultimately meaningless ideas like Ubuntu sound important.

And its no surprise that, scour as hard as you might, you will find no concrete definition of what Ubuntu actually is in Nussbaum’s article. The closest you get is this cope-out: that it’s “about communally expressed humanity”. Why is that? Well, because no one knows what it means. Because it means nothing and everything. That is its great attraction – a positive, politically correct abstraction that everyone can evoke and which no one can define.

South Africa has a cultural code of best practice, it’s called the Bill of Human Rights, which is founded on – Nussbaum will be shocked to learn – a series of civil liberties that were first fought for and established in thought and word, in Western democracies.

Here is a question no advocate of Ubuntu has ever been able to answer: what single value does Ubuntu espouse that is not encapsulated by our constitution? Right, none. So, whatever it is, it’s redundant anyway.

And no, that’s not because our Constitution is infused with Ubuntu – it’s infused with basic human rights.

You can always tell abstract waffle from well reasoned ideology because it breaks down when it comes to specifics. Liberalism, for example, can tell you exactly what constitutes freedom of speech and, using its arguments, you can examine any case in some detail in order to determine a moral position. Ubuntu wouldn’t be able to tell you the first thing about freedom of speech, primarily because it appears to be an allusion more to the way people feel than think. Sure enough, feelings are important, but they are not so helpful when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong. Imagine the kind of trouble we’d be in if we adopted Thabo Mbeki’s interpretation, that Ubuntu “does not allow for individualism that overrides the collective interests of a community”? So much for individual rights.

I wonder what Zandile Mpanza makes of that definition. She was beaten up and made to walk naked in public in Umlazi’s T section in 2007 for defying a ban on women wearing pants in the area. That’s what the ‘collective interest’ of the community demanded – no pants for women. Thank goodness no one paid any interest to Ubuntu in court when her attackers were prosecuted last year.

I suppose Nassbaum will say Mbeki got it wrong. Although I notice she failed to furiously pen a letter to Politicsweb when he made that speech.

And this allusion to the ‘collective interest’ is not particular to Mbeki. The SA Ubuntu Foundation, for example, says Ubuntu represents the “deep spiritual truth” that “we are all one”. The Borg would be proud of that. The religious connotations are simply disturbing (something Nussbaum herself is not immune to, she says denying Ubuntu would be “like denying a core part of the spiritual heritage of our country” – so Ubuntu is supernatural now, is it?)

Has the foundation also got it wrong?

Central to the idea of Ubuntu is the idea of a community. But, that too is a fiction. What is a community? Where does it begin and end? What is its precise nature? Is it geographic? (In which case, almost by admission, its members are different.) Is it cultural? (In which case, what is this culture? Is it written in a book? Does it have rules?) Is it historical? (In other words, is it being suggested people have no agency and their make-up is determined entirely by some historical force? If so, surely their behaviour today is determining the next generation’s identify? And how was that identify first formed? Someone would have had to make some decisions.) Every one of these claims, and every other, is revealed to be nonsensical on closer inspection.

This idea that each person is shaped through their interaction with the world around them is not rocket science. It’s obvious. It’s an observation as mundane and routine as saying the sun comes up in the morning. No one’s trying to turn that into a philosophy.

And yes, we should encourage tolerance, compassion, empathy and sympathy for others. Bravo! Brilliant insight. Much more has been written on those four ideas, in much greater and more compelling detail, by some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen, that has ever been written about Ubuntu.

Here is another unanswerable question: What does Ubuntu offer that is not covered by the ideas of tolerance, compassion, empathy and sympathy? Again, nothing. Again, it is redundant and its intent better served by those four ideas which are far better understood anyway. If it’s compassion for your fellow man you are interested in engendering, well, guess what, you should teach compassion. It’s in the dictionary. Look it up.

You can always tell how strong or weak an idea is by the extent to which it relies on other well established principles to exist. If it simply reformulates them, it offers nothing new. And without those ideas listed above, and a great many others, Ubuntu cannot exist. Its various assumptions are the reconfiguration of a range of values and ideals that preceed it. Take them anyway and nothing remains.

Of course everything I have said is profoundly politically incorrect and, no doubt, I will be derided for it. Not on the evidence but on the fact that I oppose the idea at all. And that’s what gives the game away. Ubuntu and its promotion is not about values and ideals or principles – is there an Ubuntu Bill of Rights? No. If there was, how would it differ from the one in our Constitution? – it’s about culture. Ubuntu is African and so, no matter what, we are told to respect it for that fact alone and any attack on it is implied as racist.

Well, I’ve got bad news; every culture – European or African, Australian or Icelandic – has good and bad elements to it. The universal battle for basic human rights, a bloody and messy historical fight, is the battle against these encroachments on individual liberties. Any ideology – nationalism through fascism through totalitarianism – that promotes the collective interest above individual liberties is a force in opposition to what progress humanity has made in that regard.

And, I am afraid the two ideas which Ubuntu tries so conveniently to merge – individualism and collectivism – are mutually exclusive. For those that would advocate uniformity over diversity therein lies the problem – one cannot overwrite the specific with the general; to do so is to denude the particular of its very essence. Depending on whether something specific differs from the general in a subtle or profound way means it might be easier or harder to warp it to a general mould but, make no mistake, either way, it is to try and change its nature.

Throughout history, the cruellest societies have been those that have tried to forge a singular and common identity through force. Significantly, they have all failed. That might seem extreme, but that sentiment can be found lurking implicitly in Thabo Mbeki’s understanding of Ubuntu, for example. For who are keepers of a group identity? Who defines what a community is and is not? And who decides when someone does or does not fit the mould and in what way they should change? Ubuntu demands someone interpret and define ‘the collective interest’, the question is who? And when you start entertaining that sort of question, that is fertile ground for authoritarianism – certainly majoritarianism – to take root.

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