by H Russell Botman


Proudly African

The spirit of ubuntu unites all Africans


An interesting public debate about what it means to be South African has been taking place the past while. Many people say that it is not only our diversity that is characteristic of our nation but also our celebration of it. To them, we are, as our country’s Constitution (of 1996) puts it, “united in our diversity”. I agree. 

I concluded in a previous column with the thought that the best point of departure in this debate may be to look not only at our national identity but also at the next level – our African identity. I would now like to expand on this.

Being South African necessarily means that we are also African. Our country is, after all, part of this continent. But what does it mean to be African? It is not just about geography. The African identity is also about certain values. And at the heart of it is the idea that I am person through and with other people. This view of life is known as Ubuntu.

Linking your own humanity to that of other people implies two things: you care for all people; and you treat them with respect. This is what makes you human; this is what it means to be part of humankind.

The advantage of this is that it creates unity where there is division. The emphasis falls on what we have in common rather on what sets us apart. So, even if you and I do not look the same, even if we do not speak the same language, even if we vote for different parties, we still have something in common with one another – our humanity. And this is why we act with humanity towards one another.

It is appropriate that a view that traces our identity back to something as fundamental as our very existence should be associated with Africa. After all, based on archaeological and genetic evidence this continent is the origin of humankind. In fact, some of the oldest humanoid fossils were discovered in our proverbial backyard – at Sterkfontein on the West Rand. This area is not called the Cradle of Humankind for nothing.

I believe that we owe it to Mrs Ples and all who came after her and scattered across the earth to pay heed to the centuries-old African wisdom that we are people through and with other people. We were not born to be divided; we all belong to one humankind. That is why we are united in our diversity.

Seen this way, we do not merely accept our diversity – we embrace and celebrate it. It is with this heritage as our foundation that we can build a better future for the next generation of South Africans. What matters is not that we can be excluded from this or that subgroup for whatever reason, but that we are all included in the overarching collective – humankind itself. That is why I am proudly African.

Now, it is indeed true that not everyone in Africa always acts in accordance with this view of life. People sometimes identify stronger with a particular subgroup that they feel part of than with the greater humankind. And if they then compete over scarce resources, it easily leads to conflict.

But as I often say, Africa does not only have elements of pain but also of hope. And the biggest of these is the importance attached to being human through and with other people. This is Africa’s gift to the world.

As South Africans we sometimes struggle to relate to our continent. We speak of “African countries” as if we ourselves are not one. But we are inseparably part of Africa and its people. Around that we can unite. 

Prof Russel Botman is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, and a Vice-President of the Association of African Universities. Find him on Twitter: @RusselBotman.



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Issue 46


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