The public (mis)use of Ubuntu: On ethics, responsibility and African development

An opinion piece by Ompha Tshikhudo Malima – Pretoria, South Africa

The Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has raised a lot of ethical questions on all fronts. In our African context, the ethical issues we face are related to the continual threat to the survival of the African person. As a continent well-known for instability (politically, economically, socially, and culturally) our problems are from the double-edged sword of (neo)colonialism and State corruption. I cringe to even quote or read more on the billions of monies lost due to corruption. This includes the illicit financial flows to Europe through multinational companies. As I write – in South Africa – there is wide-scale corruption due to tenders on medical equipment. Shocking. Enraging. I become numb when I read the countless amounts in the media. It is just another story of corruption. We make noise, it happens again, we make noise, nothing else.


Now that public officials are infected with Covid-19, there has been a lot of compassion for them. The same thing applies when they are critically ill or have died. We often see a change of atmosphere and compassion even for the most corrupt. Of course, not only does their corrupt colleagues release heart-warming messages of support, yet the public does. When citizens, who are exhausted of corruption and lack of service delivery, start to say good riddance, it raises serious debates. There was a debate on Twitter and talk radio denouncing such utterances, in the name of Ubuntu. We are told it is ‘unAfrican’ because it lacks Ubuntu (humanness). Again, I really cringe!


We really need to problematise the public (mis)use of Ubuntu. I find it problematic that Ubuntu is only seen through the Isizulu saying umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (one’s humanity is through recognising and being in harmony with others). Philosophically, and realistically speaking, Ubuntu is mainly an embodiment and way of life or reality. It is not an ideology which can just be tossed around. It is also an ethical ideal which we should not only preach about but put it into practice. Ubuntu, as an ethical model is not one-sided. I believe ethics to be relational as Ubuntu is. Simply stated, ethics involve a relationship of mutual recognition. The biblical notion of ‘do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’ applies here. The point I wish to highlight is that it is not only citizens who should have Ubuntu. Ubuntu is not a political ideology or dogma which politicians/public officials should sing, while citizens follow suit.


‘Most African leaders lack Ubuntu; they have none of it. Is it Ubuntu when they embezzle funds even at such critical times? Especially funds set aside for relief measures for those living in extreme poverty and in need of basic infrastructure. Their talk about Ubuntu should be erased because it smells of mass hypocrisy’.


As much as values are important, there needs to be practical considerations. As a society, we often complain about philosophy being too broad and not applicable in daily life. It is up to us to bring an Ubuntu philosophy to reality, and that is through the saying ‘practice what you preach’. Values are important for ethics or morality but more helpful when they become structural and institutionalised. Institutions are not abstract bodies but are filled with people who shape them, not the other way round. If we are to complain about the lack of Ubuntu in African governance, surely something needs to change. Radically.


Do African leaders lack Ubuntu for the sake of it? Are they not people among us, do they not get major support from us ‘the people’? We need to look at the issue of moral responsibility in the sense that if we are to say that leaders lack Ubuntu, we need to ask who is to blame. Although this is an open debate, it allows us to remember that these leaders are from our own societies – worse, we elected most of them. We even defend them in the name of ‘the revolution’ and ‘radical economic transformation’. Social media, mainly Twitter, is always a playing field for fighting between citizens – against and for political parties. Hashtags are consistently trending, and one cannot keep count of the number of times faceless accounts defend politicians. They are run by people, not from another planet, but from ours, our own society. Considering this, it is important to wonder and reflect whether we only invoke Ubuntu and ‘Africanness’ (whatever that means) only when it benefits us. I seem to believe that. There is this wrong belief that just because Africans are very spiritual and a value-based society, we are therefore very good people. Just like any other normal society, we have both good and bad people. Regardless of the value systems we have, we always have rotten tomatoes.


We need to remember that there are broadly two classes of power in a political system – the people and the leaders who are elected by the people, from the people. Remember the famous definition of democracy: ‘government of the people by the people’? Therefore we, as citizens should be held responsible for political wrongs by our leaders. If they can call us ‘our people’ as they always do, we can also call them ‘our leaders’. I often find it amusing when other politicians and citizens say that a certain President is not theirs, while that person is duly elected as Head of the Republic. Indeed, we should always criticise the misdeeds of the State and its agents (our leaders) but we cannot escape responsibility by denying them as ours. They are ours.


If Africa is to develop well further, we must reflect, swallow bitter pills and remember that the leaders we put in power lack values in every sense of the term. As citizens, we need to reflect on the kind of leadership we require to drive us forward. Intellectuals can write and talk about African development, decoloniality and a new African modernity all they like but if we still have morally decayed leadership, we really face a serious threat. Intellectuals can debate and put forward great ideas, but the final deed is for political will and action to prevail. The political is born from the intellectual. If we do not see this through, we will continue having many African intellectuals and theorists, while lacking action to bring ideas to materiality.


Living through an Ubuntu philosophy can be a way forward to ensure ethical leadership which adheres to governance principles and most importantly, the protection of human life. Human life is free to exist but requires maintenance or development to survive.


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