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Black heritage: understanding how Ubuntu philosophy works

Ubuntu, literally humanness, as a way of life, is as old as African civilization itself. And we saw in the past publications that the African civilization of ancient Egypt is the oldest in human history.

The origin of the word muntu (person) is traceable to Egyptian hieroglyphics; because in the dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics by EA Wallis Budge, the pictorial representation for Ntu reads as people or community. In the recent past, many famous academicians such as Prof Mogobe Ramose, Dr De Jada, and Prof Dani W Nabudere (RIP), popularized it.

International figures including Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu have all addressed the principle. The generally accepted interpretation of the idea is that human beings are interdependent and only by respecting each other’s worth can they live in harmony – “I am because you are and you are because I am” goes a typical Bantu saying.

Many observers such as Cheikh Anta Diop point out that for a system to qualify as a philosophy, it must have risen above the stage of myth; in other words, it must be scientific. Needless to emphasize, certain factors or circumstances may lead to perversion of social sciences. One of the earliest such circumstances, as expected, are closely connected to racism. One such idea is progress.

Although we tend to think that the latest is always the best, the idea of progress is in fact a racist construct. It was configured by some French philosophers during the 18th century led by Condorcet (1793) in his book Sketch of a Historical Table of the Progress of the Human Spirit, which put the white people at the top and blacks at the bottom. In political theory, John Locke (1632-1704) taught us that enslavement of blacks and slave trade was legitimate as just wars against savages.

In sharp contrast to the above ideas, in ancient Egypt, the governing principle was Maat, which was based on the qualities of the god of justice and truth. Interestingly, the word is traceable in African languages today, for example in Luganda it is kumatiza, which means to prove or establish the truth of something in contention.

This means Africans of south of the Sahara today have historical links with ancient black Egypt. Similarly, some other ancient gods of Egypt such as Seth/Sat (god of fire and destruction) to which Satan in English is traceable, is also found in Kinyarwanda/Rufumbira as Isata, which means a storm which causes fire and destruction.

The concept of Maat or balance obliges everyone, including rulers, to act with moderation so that all forces and interests in society are harmonized as much as possible.

Hence, although slavery was known in ancient societies, slaves enjoyed the status of human beings and the disability (the slave status) lasted for only one generation and the children of slaves were born as free men.

Dr Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery informs us that the causes of Atlantic slave trade were essentially economic in nature. We have learnt before in this column, following Basil Davidson’s Lost Cities of Africa, that slavery led to contempt for African lives by slave masters, and low self-esteem on the part of the descendants of slaves, and Africans generally. So, we see that racism was a consequence of slavery, and not a cause of it.

Before the start of the Atlantic slave trade, black was regarded with so much respect that the images of early great religious leaders were painted black.

It was the case with the images of Gautama Buddha (566-486), who was represented as a black person. The early images of Jesus Christ in the Coptic Church of Egypt represented him as a black person. Indeed, the early treatment of white indentured workers in the Americas shows that they were not treated any better than blacks.

Of course, the bottom line under Ubuntu philosophy is to ensure factors, especially economic ones, which make people dehumanize others, do not arise or where they are in place reforms are instituted to guarantee life with human dignity.

Frederick Engels’ observation at the grave of Karl Marx in 1883 that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue politics, religion, science, echoing Marx’s doctrine, is pertinent.

In contemporary world order, free-market ideology has the upper hand under globalization. But competition presupposes winners and losers; and this is the crux of the matter in capitalism today.

In countries where there are no welfare benefits, how can we make sure that capitalism does not dehumanize the unemployed, the businessmen who fall by the wayside when bankruptcies proliferate as banks collapse, consequent upon economic depressions?

Economic crises have been features of capitalism since the 19th century, with major crises occurring in 1870, 1929, 1987 and 2008. As economists, we will recall Karl Marx endeavoured to show that such crises could occur every ten years.

It appears major crises lead to conflict and wars as major powers fight for new sources of raw materials and markets. Some observers explain the partitioning of Africa as a response to the 1870 economic crisis, and World War II as substantially a reaction to the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Indeed, the loss of Ubuntu reflected in lives of pure criminality such as drug trafficking, robberies, racial violence, etc, cannot be checked under current philosophies based on individualism without concern for other people. Equally significant, the unemployed, the destitute and marginalized sections of society who cannot afford shelter, clothing, payment of medical bills, education, etc, are also susceptible to loss of Ubuntu.

The bottom line is that without Ubuntu, man is serving capitalism instead of capitalism serving man. And as Mahatma Gandhi pointed out: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed”. After all, a happy population is not only a rich source of labour, but is also a good market for the capitalists’ products and services.

The author is a retired judge.

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