Ubuntu Has No Borders

I had the best intention of writing part two of “Black and White” entry today, but as we visited the vibrant and multiethnic area in downtown Johannesburg, I was mercifully reminded that things are never black or (and?) white. As the planned Quran burning drama unfolded in the US over past few days, South Africa was offering its best wishes, proudly and loudly, to its Muslim minority that was preparing to celebrate Eid Ul-Fitr.

So as we drove through the busy and noisy streets of Johannesburg I thought of the African concept of “ubuntu.” Various translations and explanations of this concept are floating around but in essence it means: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

Celebrated South African activist and cleric Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered following explanations:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

I absolutely love the concept of ubuntu, though sadly I think that in the West we have largely lost that sense of community and connectedness that ubuntu stands for. Also sadly it seems that South Africa is heading in our direction to some degree.

Yesterday we met with the wonderful staff of International Organization for Migration (IOM) here in Pretoria and learned about their vast and amazing work in Southern Africa. In response to the wave of xenophobic violence in 2007 and 2008, IOM conducted a baseline study of the root causes behind it. According to the report: “…the increase in xenophobic sentiments is only one of the symptoms of a general breakdown in social cohesion in South Africa; others include racism and tribalism. Besides issues of poverty and service delivery, [the study] identified a rising culture of impunity, ineffective community leadership, and institutionalized practices that exclude foreign nationals from political and social participation, as some of the factors leading to the violence.”

So ubuntu has no borders? Or does our shared humanity carry us only so far before our individualism/tribalism (survival instincts?) takes over and makes ubuntu irrelevant?