Thursday, 20 September 2012

Ubuntu: Reflections from eThembeni

by  Joel Pearson, Thinking Africa Newsletter

Life is arduous for the people of eThembeni informal settlement on the outskirts of Grahamstown. They live without electricity, and water must be collected from one of only a few taps which frequently run dry. Last year, a couple died in a shack fire that community members were unable to fight because there were no taps nearby. Fire trucks could not enter the settlement because there is no adequate road leading into it. The region’s dry, hot summers are felt most acutely here, and winter rains turn the sparsely-vegetated plateau on which people have built their houses into a muddy deluge. It should be no surprise that promises made by well-meaning visitors are received with an air of scepticism – they seldom materialise. And indeed promises have come from many, most enthusiastically from the politicians who make the rounds as election season approaches, giving full assurance that “service delivery” will happen tomorrow, that a brighter future awaits. The people of eThembeni are still waiting.

The case of eThembeni is by no means exceptional. These zones of abandonment can be found across the country, registering in the national consciousness only as places to be feared – and preferably cleared. Shacks only make the news when they catch on fire – and only if the fire is a raging inferno. Otherwise, people who live in shack settlements are looked upon as criminals, as vermin, as disease, and they are thoroughly abandoned.

State-led social abandonment never features in government rhetoric. Indeed, our leaders try and convince us that they are working towards a “better life for all”. Jacob Zuma recently called for the people of this country to cooperate in fostering “the values and moral fibre that has always held our communities together”. Such appeals are ostensibly harnessed to the notion of Ubuntu – a uniquely African value system premised on human interdependence and community; a world-view in which the community precedes the individual. It is most often summed up in the slogan: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” or “I am because we are”. Our leaders say that it is to Ubuntu that we must turn in order to build a future society of equality and prosperity, in order to save our society from the rampant individualism that has plagued it since colonial invasion.

But if the fostering of community values has been the driving force behind state policy, as has been claimed, it would seem that shack dwellers across the country have been left out of the Ubuntu equation. One need only look at the barren landscape of eThembeni to see that, for all its rhetorical appeal and humanistic sheen, Ubuntu as a state-led project has brought little material difference for most. A far cry from the espousal of a dignity shared in common with humanity, the poor are looked upon by state bureaucrats and technocrats not as human beings but as “problems” to be “strategically managed”.

In practice, then, our leaders’ lip service to ostensibly “pre-colonial” values has operated as little more than a mask to disguise what remains a distinctly colonial system; a cloak of supposed “authentic Africanness” behind which operates a system which bleeds humanity dry for the benefit of a few individuals. While politicians may speak Ubuntu, their disconnection from the people is reflected in the tinted windows of the cavalcade of luxury vehicles which periodically rolls through South Africa’s forgotten townships on the hunt for votes.

For those who struggle to make ends meet against enormous odds, like those in eThembeni, the Ubuntu farce is plainly evident. When a child goes to bed without food, the lie of Ubuntu is exposed. When a couple burns to death in a shack, Ubuntu burns with them. When scores of miners living in dire straits are mowed down by police bullets, the loudly proclaimed humanism of our government is brutally blown to shreds. And when we hear it snidely remarked that all of these desperate people “get what they deserve”, Ubuntu is crucified.

That is not to suggest that the values of Ubuntu are entirely absent in these forgotten areas. In the daily activities of many in eThembeni and across much of Grahamstown East, for instance, one can witness an extraordinary spirit of interdependence and communal reliance. But this has certainly not been fostered through government intervention. If anything, it has been in spite of the government that people have pulled together to survive. It is not through “benevolent”, top-down management that Ubuntu is fostered – it is in the daily struggles of the people on the ground, in the face of abandonment and deepening poverty, that real humanistic values are made flesh. Ubuntu is found in the remarkable few, who, in spite of chronic scarcity and insecurity, devote themselves entirely to their community. It flourishes in the kitchens of schools that have undertaken to provide food to gardens that dot the location. It rises up in the songs of the musical groups where children spend their afternoons. And, in eThembeni too, it bubbles in the soup kitchen upon which nearly two hundred people rely for a weekly meal. These people don’t need to be told what Ubuntu is – they live it every day.

Last year, a lavish ceremony welcomed Jacob Zuma to Grahamstown. The local government set aside R250 000 for the proceedings. Raglan Road, which few locals dare to walk at night and which, incidentally, leads to eThembeni, was renamed Dr Jacob Zuma Drive. “No greater honour can be given by a people than to share what is most precious to them – their home, their freedom, their rights as citizens and their town or city,” said the President upon receiving the key to the city, “together we will live up to Makana’s spirit of service to the communities.” But no Presidential visit was scheduled for eThembeni, where Makana’s “spirit of service” is sorely lacking.

The humanistic catch phrases that punctuate our leaders’ proclamations mean nothing to the people far below if they are not underpinned by a substantive programme to end their suffering. If we learn anything from the President’s visit it is this: if Ubuntu is truly to lead us to a future of common prosperity, if it is truly to be a revolutionary song, its content cannot come from the hollow evangelism of our politicians – it is up to us to be the living embodiment of Ubuntu. It is in the choices we make every day that Ubuntu is either fostered or undermined. If “I am because we are”, then my humanity is drained to the extent that I allow those around me to suffer.

Ubuntu can be harnessed to achieve a new society only if we recognise that by turning a blind eye to the struggles waged everyday to acquire the basic necessities of life, we are dehumanized, brutalized, and impoverished ourselves. With an apprehension of our inescapable interconnectedness, one cannot but see the situation of the shack dwellers of eThembeni – and of many millions more across the country – for what it really is: an onslaught against our common humanity, a stain on our collective conscience, an atrocity at the heart of the Rainbow Nation.