zondag 12 januari 2014


In several speculations following the death of Nelson Mandela there was talked about the African philosophy of Ubuntu by which the South African statesman was supposed to be inspired. Especially Mandela’s ideals of equality and reconciliation were to be traced back to it.

In the references to Ubuntu it is often said that the word is hardly translatable. In one of the attempts at explanation, I encountered the following statement : “The essence of man is that he is inextricably linked with other people. Westerners say: I think, so I am. Africans say: I am human, because I participate and share”. Hence follows the incentive to solve conflicts by  social harmony, endless consultation and dialogue.

Although this statement is attributed to Bishop Tutu, it seems to me just as well to reflect a romantic Western view of Africans. Up to the generalizations and inaccuracies associated with all romantisations.

Such an inaccuracy, in my view, is the assumption that the West would not know collectivity. On the contrary, I would say, what else were the patriotic movements in many European countries in the nineteenth century, up to the enthusiasm with which those countries attacked one another in the Great War of 1914? And to what extent citizens, even after that war, could be enraptured by a sense of togetherness can still be seen in films from Nazi Germany from the thirties. The problem is: we had our fill of it. Reasoning along these historic lines we may also settle with another assumption that is implied in the romantic image. Because the idea that collectivities, not only in Western Europe but also in Africa, are not beatific can become sufficiently clear from the terrible massacres that have occurred on the African continent over the past twenty-five years between African peoples. Often fought out not with Western armaments, but with authentic African machetes.

Finally, if Mandela made clear anything, it is the indispensability of individual conscience. In comparing Mandela with some other great contemporary minds like Havel and Sakharov, commentator Stevo Akkerman arrives at a feature they have in common. “Their greatness is inseparable from the efforts of the prevailing power to make them small – that these efforts  were not successful was due to a sense of personal autonomy which no executioner can compete with. The greatness resides here in the stubborn adherence to the ideals of equality and dignity, knowing – which applied very strong for both Havel and Mandela – that human rights are inalienable, for everyone, always. So even for evildoers”. It is hard so say this in a more abstract and less collectivist way.

My conclusion is that Ubuntu, at least in the popular romantic sense in which it is used a lot, cannot inspire me very much. For that to accomplish it too much extols the ‘collective’ and ‘participation’, and the concept does not help to discern between participating in a good and a bad way.

I do not mean to say that one does not need a social context. Indeed, I think humans need that very much. What I do say is that one should be careful with collectivities when it comes to distinctions between right and wrong. In spite of all it might be the individual which is the find-spot for hat kind of distinctions. In any case, a great deal of loneliness has indeed been characteristic of the life of Nelson Mandela.

Also see The Heroic Cosmopolitical Individual