A lively and thought-provoking conversation that interrogated the concept Ubuntu and role it plays in creating a decent society with empowered people living a good life took place during a webinar of the Ubuntu Dialogues Series hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) Museum and at Michigan State University (MSU) in the United States of America (USA).
Currently growing in popularity and participant numbers, the virtual webinar welcomed more than 100 people last week (31 August) from almost every continent, including Helsinki and Antananarivo. Attendees eagerly participated in producing and sharing knowledge and practices, said Dr Marietjie Oelofsen,manager of the Ubuntu Dialogues project, which forms part of a partnership between SU and the African Studies Centre at MSU.
In the recent webinar, Dr Motsamai Molefe, a senior researcher at the Centre for Leadership in Ethics (CLEA) at the University of Fort Hare, was in conversation with Prof Nontobeko Moyo of the School of Social Work at the Indiana University (USA). Dr Molefe is also the Ubuntu Dialogues Seminar Exchange Fellow for 2021.
Both speakers interrogated the notions of Ubuntu, human dignity and decent society and how these concepts play out in people’s lives, institutions and creation of a decent society.
Speaking from his expertise fields of African philosophy and social and political ethics, Dr Molefe argued that Ubuntu should form part of institutions’ moral political and legal infrastructures that acknowledges and respects the dignity of a person.
He explained that all humans have dignity just for being human. This dignity gives every human value, makes them supreme, precious and most valued in the world. “Humans occupy a privileged and special place in the world above animals, plants or anything else. Irrespective of what humans have achieved or how they conduct themselves, they all deserve respect and their human dignity must be acknowledged,” said Dr Molefe.
According to Dr Molefe, many political problems in the world today are the result of the misrecognition of the value of every human person and the respect they deserve. Referring to racism, xenophobia, homophobia and similar political problems, he stated that characteristics like sexual orientation, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, poverty, wealth or achievements could not change the high value of a human being or erase human dignity.
In creating a decent society, Dr Molefe highlighted that favourable conditions need to exist for people to have a good life and empower themselves. “I find society has failed to create positive conditions for people to reach Ubuntu,” he said.
Using prof Avishai Margalit, a Jewish philosopher’s social philosophy that a decent society, or a civilized society is one whose institutions do not humiliate the people under their authority, and whose citizens do not humiliate one another, Dr Molefe advised that the first task of the state is to remove the humiliation from society, its functionaries, practices and institutions. This way a decent society will exist, he said.
Prof Moyo whose scholarship focuses on social development issues in Southern Africa responded to Dr Molefe’s interventions by stating that every person can contribute to change society by doing introspection and find ways to comply with the Ubuntu principals of among others, compassion, care for one another, respect, love and sharing. This way people can change institutions and society.
During the question and answer session, an audience member raised the question: “Is the value of an evil person more than a cow?” Dr Molefe responded to the question by using the aphorism “Pass the cow and catch the man” to explain why ‘man’ (representing a human person) is more important than a ‘cow’ (representing wealth).” It means that the preservation of human life is more important than possessing wealth and it is imperative to choose human life,” he said.
Reflecting on the webinar afterwards, Dr Oelofsen said the webinar succeeded in its goal to explore in depth, what it means to be a person through connecting with otherpeople. “The interest in the webinar and engagement between the attendees is testament that the desired goal of revisiting, rethinking, and reimagining issues is happening, and will continue to happen this year,” she said.
The three remaining webinars for the year will touch on contentious issues like white individualism and male violence, refugees, and the spiritual dimensions of Ubuntu.
The Museum will soon announce the students who will participate in the graduate fellowship programme. This graduate fellowship programme creates particular spaces for young people in South Africa and the USA to interrogate Ubuntu in terms of issues that are important to them.