Hope for “a More Human Face” in Our Post-Conflict Countries
Every year on September 12, South Africans remember the violent murder of Steve Biko, the icon of the anti-apartheid struggle who was murdered by the apartheid police on this day in 1977.
Biko is also remembered for challenging South Africans—and especially black South Africans—to become agents of change and to give South Africa “a more human face.” He described the fight for freedom and social justice as “a quest for true humanity,” a quest, he argued, to bestow upon South Africa “the greatest gift possible—a more human face.”
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a compelling example of the kind of historical moment that came close to achieving Biko’s quest. Recently, however, the problem of racial hatred expressed through social media, radio and TV talk shows has dominated public discourse in South Africa, threatening to rupture South Africa’s young democracy. The protagonists in this drama are young people, the “born frees” who were born after the collapse of apartheid.
This week, spending a few days in Belfast, the story of the Belfast High School pupil who wrote quotes from Hitler’s Mein Kampf in his biography in the school yearbook reminded me of the challenges of living together in societies with a history of sectarian violence. With the increasing frequency of the violence of racism in South Africa, and similar trends expressed through acts of intolerance and sectarian violence in Belfast, it seems clear that integration at schools and universities is insufficient on its own to inspire change and transformation. The legacy of the past, where young people are socialised in societies in which the symbols and repercussions of the past confront them daily, continue to reproduce the divisions of the past. What will bring about shifts in perception, if not transformation, are opportunities for dialogue and creating respectful understanding and mutual recognition that goes beyond simply learning about the importance of diversity.
In the aftermath of political and sectarian violence, communities from different sides of conflict should embrace this quest for a more human face that Steve Biko talked about, and find ways of connecting meaningfully with the Other. In order to overcome the legacies of the past, building a sense of connection is vital when people from different sides of the historical past continue to live together in the same country. The opportunities for engagement can create sites of human sharing, which may lead to mutual recognition and shared experience. Connecting through dialogue may provide points of identification, entryways into the experiences of others in a way that enables comparison across critical registers of difference. It becomes possible to engage empathetic questions, such as “How old was your daughter/son/mother/father when he died during that incident?” The shared experience of loss, for example, cuts across the distinction of black or white, Catholic, Protestant, Israeli or Palestinian.
It is ironic that the same factors that can ignite and perpetuate animosity, fear, and hatred—the love for those killed or maimed by “the other”—might also suspend those negative sentiments. By providing a way into the experience of the “enemy,” love and loss may provide a way out of violence. Ultimately, love and loss are what is common and thus in a sense is shared. Love and loss enable healing that opens new possibilities in the aftermath of violent conflict.
At the centre of this “love” is Ubuntu—a deep sense of caring for the Other that is embedded in most traditional African societies.
The concept of ubuntu is an ethic based on the understanding that one’s subjectivity is inextricably intertwined with that of others in one’s community. From the perspective of ubuntu, all people are valued as part of the human community and worthy of being so recognised. This entails not blind acceptance of others, no matter what they do, but rather an orientation of openness to others and a reciprocal caring that fosters a sense of solidarity. Ubuntu is often associated with the concept of self “I am because we are,” which stands in contrast to the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am.” While recognising the role of the individual, ubuntu values a sense of solidarity with others—the individual always in relation—rather than individual autonomy.
It seems to me, however, that the meaning of ubuntu is best captured in the isiXhosa expression Umntu ngumntu ngabanye abantu. Literally translated, this means, “A person is a person through being witnessed by, and engaging in reciprocal witnessing of other persons,” or “A person becomes a human being through the multiplicity of relationships with others.” The meaning conveyed by the expression is twofold. First, subjectivity depends on being witnessed; the richness of subjectivity flows from interconnectedness with the wider community, and from the reciprocal caring and complementarity of human relationships. Second, the phrase conveys the kind of reciprocity that calls on people to be ethical subjects. Mutual recognition is fundamental to being a fellow human being, a relational subject in the context of community. As Archbishop Tutu describes the concept, ubuntu “is open and available to others, is affirming to others. . . . My humanity caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.”
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is Professor and Research Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Professor and Research Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University, SA