Our Heritage: Ubuntu or Resentment?

On September 24th we celebrated Heritage Day, in which we try to embrace the unity in diversity of our African, European and Asian backgrounds and cultures that make up this country. Many South Africans talk of Ubuntu as a philosophy: a person is a person because of other people. My identity is found in community. Reduced to a one-liner: “I am because we are”. Ubuntu is important to the founding myth of the new South African nation because it contributes to the narrative of freedom – the long and difficult journey from segregation, apartheid and state violence to democracy and a recognition of common humanity.

Ubuntu permeates our national way of proceeding, underpinning the restorative as opposed to retributive justice approach of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the emphasis on human rights in the 1997 South African Constitution, and the emphasis on dialogue in dispute resolution. Procedurally, it stresses consultation, modelled on the African traditional lekgotla: the meeting of stakeholders where positions are debated and an attempt is made at consensus.

But beneath the surface there is in South Africa a widespread culture of resentment. Resentment takes on many forms, but is compounded by an attitude of entitlement. The rich feel entitled to their wealth and to show it off by conspicuous consumption that manifests in ways ranging from the absurd to the obscene. The poor feel entitled to an immediate share in the material benefits of liberation: there is the oft-held view that now that apartheid is gone government will meet all material needs. The former is a delusion of grandeur that exacerbates the deep division between rich and poor. The latter is based on an illusion: that someone else will provide.

To make matters worse, in contrast to the myth of harmony presented by Ubuntu, there is the widespread belief (as Australian anthropologist Adam Ashforth has shown) in witchcraft, particularly in black urban communities and rural areas. When a sibling or relative does well and I do not, it is not the result of better education, hard work or dumb luck. Rationality would tell us that relative wellbeing is based upon these factors, as well as the reality that we live in a very corrupt society where social and political connections too are a factor in personal success or failure.

But rationality would mean addressing the challenges of patronage and power, calling government to account for what it’s supposed to do: provide the contexts (education, health, rule of law, good governance) that make it possible for us to make a decent life for ourselves. This seems too difficult to us, would mean challenging our heroes and upsetting the veneer of harmony.

No, rather we turn in on ourselves or look for family or friends or supernatural powers to blame – or bribe. Faced with another’s success, it’s easier to say: It’s clear s/he has powerful muti [magic power] – and it is at my expense. Resentment grows. And with it hostility to others, passive and sometimes active aggression and even (if the latest statistics are to be believed) violence. This is the path of failure and futility, a high road to nowhere.

Which myth – Ubuntu or Resentment – will we embrace?

Fr Anthony Egan SJ
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (UCT), B.A. (Hons) (London), M.Div., S.T.L. (Weston), Ph.D. (Wits)

Fr Anthony Egan SJ has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he currently teaches at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for Spotlight. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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