Ubuntu, a word of Nguni origin that speaks of collectiveness and humanity, will get renewed usage since it was invoked in President Barack Obama’s tribute to Nelson Mandela during memorial services for the fallen freedom fighter last week in Johannesburg, South Africa.
It’s hard for one word to capture the full essence of Mandela’s majesty, but ubuntu comes about as close as any, and it’s all about generosity and respect for each other, Mandela once explained—attributes inseparably connected with his legacy.
While it may be too soon to talk about the pressing realities in South Africa today as the world says goodbye to the iconic leader—and few encomiums will match Obama’s when he said, “After this great liberator is laid to rest, when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength—for his largeness of spirit—somewhere inside ourselves”—his legacy is by no means sullied.
Most South Africans will retain Mandela’s memory and efforts to change their miserable conditions and the increasing disparities with an understanding that he did his best. But when you’re struggling to survive on $2 a day, as too many South Africans are, memories can mean only so much and carry you only so far. Much like the circumstances that exist on race relations here in America, segregation in South Africa is more pervasive than it was a generation ago under the draconian apartheid system.
Among the demands often heard from South Africans still mired in the muck of economic and cultural despair are equal opportunity, equal pay, a decent wage and a more participatory democracy. Add to this affordable housing, health care and any kind of well-paying job, and the situation in South Africa mirrors conditions faced by many Americans. The end of so-called American apartheid, that is, Jim Crow, has not brought about the dramatic changes anticipated by those on the bottom, and the disparities that exist in South Africa, particularly for the historically downtrodden, show few signs of closing the gaps.
In effect, the political and economic circumstances in South Africa and for the poor and the working poor in America are limited by the same global capitalism that is relentlessly predatory no matter where you live on the planet.
Madiba has departed, and what remains is an unfinished mission he often termed as a quest for a rainbow society, much in the manner of Mayor David Dinkins’ vision of a “gorgeous mosaic” when describing New York City. One of the difficulties that confronted Mandela was making real some of the proposals he envisioned during his early years as a member and leader of the African National Congress (ANC), especially the notion of nationalizing various industries, and none more lucrative than the mines.
But that plan had to be scuttled in view of the pressing realities in his nation, to say nothing of the multinational corporations that ruled the economy. After a round of discussion with his advisers and trips abroad, Mandela realized that conceding to a capitalist mandate and surrendering to the imperialism of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. power-brokers was inescapable.
His advisers told him that adhering to a mode of nationalization would kill any possibility of investments—it was a dreadful prospect, but one that left his nation with few alternatives. Leading the ANC from outside the government was one thing, but the party soon discovered that policy in a vacuum was not practical when placed in context with global powers. In the same way revolutionary theory proffered by ANC evolved into reformist praxis, the economic base, similarly, had to be rethought.
Much of this economic blather means very little to those struggling to hack out a living below the poverty, and the change in government has not made it easier for nearly 60 percent of South Africans, which is an increase of nearly 10 percent from those below the poverty line in 1995, as Mandela completed his first year in office as president.
In 2011, the average annual income for white South Africans was R365,134 ($45,600). The average Black household earned an average R60,613 ($7,500). Even more drastic is the living conditions of millions of Africans who are still without running water, effective sewage systems and flushing toilets. All of these inequities are compounded by a lack of healthy food, insufficient medical care and a growing disparity in the educational opportunities between Black and white South Africans.
It is an understatement to say that Mandela’s revolution is unfinished because, in many respects, it never truly began given that he served only one term in office—an admirable decision a few other African leaders ought to emulate.
And even if he had been in office as long as he was in prison, the poverty and inequality in South Africa would still be undiminished. Changes are needed in so many important ways that it may take centuries to repair the damage done by apartheid in the same way Black America is fighting almost vainly to get on its feet after centuries of deprivation and racism.
Ubuntu is an ideal that Mandela said he was prepared to die for and, to a great degree, he did just that, and now it’s time to see if future generations are prepared to stake their lives on making South Africa a better society.