AMonsignor Emeritus Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu 90th birthday on October 7 is a good opportunity to reflect on man’s contributions to South African society and to world thought. I do this as a philosopher and in the light of Ubuntu, the Southern African (specifically, Nguni) word for humanity which is often used to encapsulate sub-Saharan moral ideals.
An ubuntu ethic is often expressed with the maxim,
Clearly, that doesn’t say much. But one idea that native Africans often associate with this maxim is that your basic goal in life should be to become a real or genuine person. You must strive to realize your higher human nature, in short to expose ubuntu.
How do you do that? “By other people”, an abbreviation to value community or harmonious relationships with them. For many southern African intellectuals, communion or harmony is about identifying with and showing solidarity with others, that is, living together, cooperating and helping people – out of sympathy and for themselves.
Tutu sums up his understanding of how to expose ubuntu as follows:
Apartheid as inhuman
Tutu is well known for invoking an ubuntu ethic to assess South African society, and he can take credit for making the term familiar to people. The politicians, activists and academics around the world.
Tutu criticized the National Party, who formalized apartheid, and his supporters for having prized discord, the opposite of harmony.
Apartheid has not only prevented the “races” from identifying with each other or from being in solidarity with one another. He went further by subordinating one “race” and harming others. In Tutu’s words, apartheid made people “less human” for their inability to participate on an equitable basis and to share power, wealth, land, opportunity and even themselves.
One of Tutu’s most striking and contested claims is that apartheid damaged not only black people but also the whites. Although most whites got richer as a result of apartheid, they did not become as morally good or human as they could have been.
As is known, Tutu argued that, through ubuntu, democratic South Africa was correct in dealing with the political crimes of the apartheid era by seeking reconciliation or restorative justice. Yes “Social harmony is for us the summum bonum– the greatest good ”, then the main objective when it comes to dealing with wrongdoing – as bearers of African values - should be to establish harmonious relations between perpetrators and victims. From this point of view, punishment for the sole purpose of repaying wrongdoers, eye for eye fashion, is unwarranted.
Tutu’s ubuntu controversies
Tutu is often criticized these days for advocating a kind of reconciliation that allows white people who benefit from apartheid injustice to get out of the woods. But this criticism is not fair. Reconciliation for the Tutu did not mean simply shaking hands after one side exploited and disparaged another. Instead, it means that the perpetrator, and those who benefited from it, must acknowledge the wrongdoing and seek to repair the damage it has caused at a certain cost.
Tutu has remark since the 1990s that
Unless there is a real material transformation in the lives of those who have been victims of apartheid, we might as well say goodbye to reconciliation. It just won’t happen without repair.
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he chaired aimed to help South Africans come to terms with their past and lay the groundwork for reconciliation. In the fifth volume of his report he also insisted on the need for redistribution that would improve the lives of black South Africans. And Tutu continued to lament the failure of white communities to undertake sacrifices on their own, and to demand compensation from them, for example, by calling for a “wealth” or “white” tax which would be used to uplift black communities.
Another criticism of Tutu is that his interpretation of ubuntu has been distorted through the prism of Christianity. Although Tutu’s Christian beliefs influenced his understanding of ubuntu, it is also true that his understanding of ubuntu has influenced his Christian beliefs. Tutu’s background as Archbishop of the Anglican Church does not necessarily make his interpretation of ubuntu totally anti-African or implausible.
In particular, Tutu has controversial kept believing that forgiveness is essential for reconciliation, and it is reasonable to suspect that his Christian beliefs have influenced his understanding of what Ubuntu demands here.
I agree with the critics who argue that reconciliation does not require forgiveness. But, Tutu might not be right to think that forgiveness would be part of the better form of reconciliation, an ideal towards which to strive?
A neglected vision of human dignity
Tutu’s ideas about humanity, harmony and reconciliation have had a huge influence, not only in South Africa, but around the world. There is another idea from him that I mention in closing that has not been so influential, but also deserves attention. It is Tutu’s rejection of the idea that what is precious about us as human beings is our autonomy, which is a quintessentially Western idea.
Instead of, according to Tutu:
We are different so that we can know our need of each other because no one is ultimately self-sufficient. The completely self-sufficient person would be sub-human.
In short, what gives us dignity is not our independence, but rather our interdependence, our ability to participate and share with each other, even our vulnerability. This African and relational conception of human dignity has not yet influenced much outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Hope this tribute can help one way or another.
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