Ubuntu is a southern African ethical concept that suggests that humanity is interdependent. Rooted in a sense of community, “ubuntu” means that we are people through other people. South Africa pushes a strong rhetoric of ubuntu, for example the way Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu used it to substantiate rainbowism.
While South Africans claim the concept of ubuntu, we also display disturbingly xenophobic undercurrents, which emerged in 2008. And they keep resurfacing. Over the last couple of weeks we have seen a resurgence in xenophobia in areas like Pretoria West, Atteridgeville and Rosettenville. There was even a whole entire march against immigrants that took place in Pretoria on 24 February.
The Daily Vox spoke to Dr Edwin Etieyibo, who lectures African philosophy at Wits University, about the disconnect between ubuntu and xenophobia in South Africa.
A simple, straightforward answer would be to say if people practise xenophobia – given that ubuntu is supposed to be more inclusive, it’s about not just my group of people but humanity – then you expect that one who has ubuntu should be welcoming to others. Desmond Tutu expressed it quite clearly when he said someone who has ubuntu is kind, considerate and welcoming to others. Xenophobia is the opposite of welcoming to others. One that is not welcoming to others doesn’t have ubuntu, right? That would be the simple, straightforward answer. People who practise xenophobia don’t have ubuntu, they don’t practise ubuntu.
A more complex answer would be that other considerations override the sense of ubuntu. A key concept in Aristotelian ethics is “akrasia”, which is weak will. The idea is that if you develop your character sufficiently to have these virtues then you always do the right thing. Why would someone who knows that this [behaviour] is destructive to them, still engage in those actions? According to akrasia, they have weak will so they know what is right but their will is weak. If you use this to speak about ubuntu and xenophobia, you could say maybe they recognise that their actions are wrong but there are other actions that override this.
The other thing could be political rhetoric. Maybe they hear political leaders talking about foreigners in certain terms. If you see these politicians as [people] who you look up to, you want to put into action what [they are saying.] For example the attack that happened two years ago; it happened not too long after the King of Zulus talked about foreigners as others. The first attack happened around Durban. People associate this one that happened – I think it was around Tshwane – the mayor of Tshwane talked about foreigners as others. Even if it was by coincidence, there were attacks in Pretoria.
It’s not as straightforward as saying [xenophobic attackers] don’t have ubuntu. To be able to say that, you need to interview them and say: ‘Do you know ubuntu? Do you believe in it?’ You may be surprised that they say, ‘Yes I know ubuntu. I believe in ubuntu.’ There are complexities. It could be that they don’t have ubuntu, it could be that some of them pander to the politicians’ rhetorics, it could also be that some people are pushed by their socio-economic conditions.
Added to that is the idea of scapegoatism. You look for vulnerable people to blame who cannot fight back. If you blame government, government is going to fight back. In terms of level playing fields, there’s no level playing fields because one can use its power or control over the media to squash you so your narrative gets lost. Generally we could say: if you want to attack people, attack the white people because your condition, for example, is because of the long history of apartheid. It’s because the wealth is concentrated in the hands of 1% of people – most of them, white people. But you can’t [blame white people] because white people will crush you. They have money, they have power.
So who is vulnerable? It’s the foreigners – some of them are living on a slippery slope. They don’t have papers – they are illegitimate – so they can’t fight you.
The idea of scapegoatism plays a role of catharsis because it’s like frustration that is acted out – when you burn some businesses or punch some people in the face it kind of gives you some satisfaction that my condition is terrible but I’ve meted out justice to those people who are responsible, even if they are the wrong target.
But this doesn’t excuse these people. [These are] explanations but not ones that we say we [can] accept. Morality is about prescribing conduct and [saying] this is the right moral conduct. When you fail that conduct, you’ve acted immorally.
I feel that in South Africa, as long as you have a large number of the population who are poor, uneducated, continue to struggle economically – there will always be the ubuntu [disconnect]. It’s not like we can say tomorrow will be better. It’s not like we can say God will bring manna from heaven. Even when they die, their children will be chained in that cycle of poverty. Even if politicians did not have this rhetoric of xenophobia, you’re going to have these pockets of it. Even if you chase away all the illegals, it’s not going to solve your problem. Unless you provide a job for them.
But I also think, given South Africa’s history with apartheid and racism: you should know better. Xenophobia is racism of a different kind, it’s the same with sexism – discrimination against people who don’t belong to a certain group of people. So you have to wonder: how did you get here? From ubuntu, something’s wrong here. From your history, something’s wrong here.