I spent 3 weeks in South Africa again—my 8th visit there--during May and June. I met one day with Ubuntu Education Centre in Zwide, an African township on the edge of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Over 200 young people were assembling for an after school program. The program is a pathway to support them to be successful in the face of the overwhelming odds against them: poverty, loss of parents to HIV/AIDS, HIV+ status themselves, academic and economic disadvantage inherited from the years of apartheid.
Ubuntu is a term that means a person is a person through others. I am, because you are. My personhood is intricately involved in your personhood, and your ability to become who you are meant to be and able to be. It is a philosophy that is inculcated into the African way of life.
In 1956, the Whites Only Group Act was passed in South Africa, beginning the many years of apartheid—separateness—and oppression of black and coloured indigenous people by the white Afrikaners—the descendents of the Dutch who colonized the Cape. Oppression literally comes from the Latin root word “to press” or to “limit or restrict movement.” Forcible relocation of all the black and coloured, restrictions on work and access, and violent means of carrying out these laws was the norm. That system created those massive townships, where no toilets was a way of life.
As I was reflecting back during that last visit, I recalled attending a workshop at CSWE back in the mid-90s, around 1994 or 1995. Don Cooney was the workshop presenter, and addressing community organizing. He mentioned the apartheid years and efforts made by groups in the US to stand with those in the struggle in South Africa. I continue to return to South Africa to study and learn, and to just be with people in the struggle. It was my impression in 2001 (my first visit) that South Africa had accomplished far more in 10 years than the US had in 40 years.
I was also thinking in terms of marking time and events in history. Apartheid ended in 1992, the democratic elections were held in 1994, and the 1997 White Paper on Social Welfare identified what I considered groundbreaking efforts at undoing the massive inequality intentionally created by the apartheid system.
I was comparing those efforts with the results achieved by the US since the 1964 Civil Rights Act legislation. Perhaps what I did not fully comprehend earlier was how easily the freedom struggle can be compromised and politicized.
During the War on Poverty years, there were many government-led efforts to address the inequality in the US. That war was co-opted by the war on Vietnam—resources were commandeered and political pressure exerted regarding how tax dollars were spent.
In the beginning of the transformation in South Africa, there were government-led efforts to create housing, employment, and access to resources. Perhaps it is inevitable, but the efforts there have been politicized as well. I heard it described as “politicizing the resource gaps.” Each political party made promises in the recent election about who would provide basic resources: what has been dubbed “The Toilet Wars.”
It seems to me that the whole world is engaged in the toilet wars. Pitting each of us against the other, without recognition of ubuntu—that my humanity is inextricably connected to your humanity. I become who I am, I realize my human potential by working with you and walking with you to become who you are and achieve your human potential.
When political parties achieve “victory” through toilet wars, no one wins. We all need a toilet. If I don’t have a toilet, what are my options? To be blunt, only to defecate in my yard or your yard. Without a toilet, surrounded by a million others without a toilet, how much individual accountability am I supposed to be able to achieve? Even if we all dig our little holes and cover our own crap, a million holes of crap in the community takes up a lot of space that is needed for other things.
At the heart here, I think, is ubuntu: the values we hold. The government in South Africa—by all accounts I heard on the last trip—has succumbed to the same thing the government in the US has: my hand is in the till and I am not willing to take it out. Government “service” has nice benefits that are achieved at the expense of masses. In the US, it’s not welfare, or education, or the arts that are draining the coffers dry. It is the government payroll at the top--administration, coupled with corporations and individuals who do not pay their fair share of taxes on their huge wealth and profits.
The same thing has happened in South Africa according to people with whom I spoke during my visit. People in government have discovered a way of life that allows them to have far more than they ever dreamed, and they have taken advantage of it at the expense of the masses of people who remain unemployed, homeless, ill, and in poverty. The system becomes about perpetuating one's own lifestyle, not in ensuring that everyone has access to a basic standard of living.
Picture the senators and representatives in the US who have retirement income, government-funded health care, and the ability to raise their own salaries, and at the same time, are clamoring for no unions, no benefits for the public service workers, and the dismantling of the labor department and the basic social security system, citing the need for reduction of government funding. Couple that with the fact that the majority of them already have resources, and one has to question if government service is a misnomer for power. Service is what is done by the public workers who do police and fire protection, social work in child welfare and with other vulnerable populations, drive our busses and repair our roads—those very areas that our legislative “representatives” want to cut, all the while, not cutting any of the expense associated with maintaining their own lavish lifestyles.
The struggle for humanity, for equality, for justice, for access to resources and our share of life-needs (toilets!) really is universal. That is what holds us together: our universal ubuntu. This concept unites us across barriers of color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other division or difference.
This amazing human resilience and resistance unites in some of us and we embrace each other rather than retreat behind walls, gates, and electric fences, contented to block out the evidence of any relationship with those outside of the fence. That universal struggle for human dignity is inextricably tied up in our own relationship with each other. As we make the effort to relate to each other, to understand and deepen that connection, it enables us to carry on in the struggle.
One final reflection about this comes from the story of the political prisoners in Robben Island under apartheid. The white guards required the African prisoners to call them “Boss” and to ask for permission to relieve themselves during the workday. The political prisoners were unwilling to compromise by using the term boss, or by asking for a basic human need. They would stand in such a way as to shield a man while he urinated against the wall and cover the evidence. A literal standing in solidarity to preserve human dignity.
Marking time is important in the work of the struggle for human dignity and justice. Events and years are not “the Thing” but they help to ground us in the thing: our common work for justice and our constant connectedness to each other. The thing is our ubuntu.