Student Conversations 2019
In October 2019, students from Stellenbosch University (SU) and students from Michigan State University (MSU) engaged in four sessions of virtual dialogue on the concept of Ubuntu. This was the first of three cohorts of students who will engage in the Ubuntu Dialogue Project over the next three years.
Lireko Qhobela is an applied theatre facilitator, drama therapist, performer and a PhD candidate with The Centre for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and Reparative Quest (AVReQ) at Stellenbosch University. Her work involves the use of art and drama techniques to enable dialogue, self- reflection and healing. She enjoys a fusion of play, yoga and storytelling in her facilitation work. Her current project explores the experiences of applied drama and theatre practitioners within the South African context to better understand their needs as they work in spaces that hold collective trauma narratives. Other interests include the care and wellbeing of artists, mindfulness and fitness.
Marietjie Oelofsen is a post-doctoral fellow at Stellenbosch University’s Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation where she is part of a research project that examines the inter-generational effect of apartheid on three communities in the Western Cape – Bonteheuwel, Langa, and Worcester. She was the co-editor of, These are the things that sit with us, a book that contains the stories of 29 people who participated in the research project. She has a PhD in Media Studies from Rhodes University. She previously worked as a journalist, in health research communication and at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa).
Philip Uko Effiong has been teaching at the college level for over 20 years and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He received his Master’s in Literature of the African Diaspora and Bachelor’s in English, both from the University of Calabar, Nigeria. Prior to joining Michigan State University (MSU) in the Spring of 2017, Philip taught drama, fiction, nonfiction, the oral tradition, and writing at various Nigerian, American, and Ghanaian universities. In addition to a book on African American drama, Philip has published several articles that cover a range of topics in the humanities.
Upenyu Majee is Project Manager for Ubuntu Dialogues and Faculty Lead for the Reeves Scholars Program at Michigan State University, and the co-founder of Decoloniality Dialogues. He served as Academic Coordinator for the Mandela Washington Fellowship and Academic Lead with the PEOPLE Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison); and as a High School Teacher and Principal in Mutare, Zimbabwe. He holds a joint PhD in Educational Policy Studies and Development Studies, and master’s degrees in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and African Languages and Literature from UW-Madison, and a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Linguistics from the University of Zimbabwe. Upenyu’s research interests include higher education internationalization, indigenous knowledge systems, and institutional and knowledge decolonization.
Ten students from Stellenbosch University, and nine students from Michigan State University participated in the dialogue. The striking feature of the participants was the range of disciplines represented in the “room”: Biochemistry, Biology, Computer Sciences, Drama and Theatre, Education, Fine Arts, Gender Studies, Global Studies, History, Mechanical Engineering, Political Theory, Psychology, Sociology, and Theology. Of the nine US participants, five had never been to Africa. Of the other four, one student was from Ethiopia, one was born and raised in Malawi from Rwandan refugee parents, and two students have spent time in Africa as part of study abroad trips – one to Tanzania, and one to Namibia and South Africa. The South African students were from South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Two of the students from Michigan State University identified as white. All the other participants identified either as African American, Black African or Black South African, as “Mixed Race”, and as Brown South African. One South African participant identified herself as “human”. Ten of the participants were male and 9 were female.
Michigan State University Participants
Senior, Mechanical Engineering
Michigan State University
An international student from Brazil: came to the U.S. to pursue a bachelor’s degree and maybe seek work as well. Have grown a lot as a person from working as an ICA for the last few years, and through dialogue and interactions with people from different cultures. Excited about the Ubuntu Dialogues because the program provides the opportunity to continue learning. Does not have a lot of prior knowledge about South Africa but has passion for learning and interacting with different cultures so as to become more educated about them. For a few years now, have had the dream of visiting South Africa.
Sophomore, Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy
Michigan State University
Part of the African diaspora at MSU: inherited a refugee status from parents who were refugees of the Rwandan genocide. Was born in and mostly raised in Malawi. Family traveled around all over southern and eastern Africa. Lived in South Africa for a little under a year 2009 when 8 years old. Moved to Kalamazoo, MI in 2013 and recently became naturalized. Fascinated by the history of South Africa including the struggle for freedom. The Ubuntu Dialogues will provide the opportunity to connect with fellow Africans living on the continent to discuss the state of affairs there including the recent wave of xenophobic attacks.
Senior, Global & International Studies (MES concentration)
Michigan State University
I am a Junior originating from South Florida. My major is Journalism and I minor in Entrepreneurship. I represent my college as a student assistant in the Department of Diversity Equity and Inclusion. My passions are creativity and unraveling other’s stories.
Senior, Social Work; Women & Gender Studies
Michigan State University
No prior connection to South Africa and knowledge of the country is limited to the little learned in grade school, but excited to talk with those who live in South Africa and learn directly from them. Anticipates the discussion on the meaning of Ubuntu to be particularly meaningful because the concept is relevant to future career in Social Work. Curious to see how living in another country might affect one’s views on these topics. President of the Association of Black Social Work Students.
Michigan State University
An international student from Ethiopia. Went to an international school, had friends from South Africa and really liked their culture, and am looking to learn more about it.
First Year, Masters of Fine Arts, Studio Art
Michigan State University
An artist, specifically painting and printmaking – focuses on the Black experience and history that is often neglected in American history. Believes that it is important to tell these forgotten stories in history, especially given the prevailing political climate. Looking to become a museum educator and to bring more inclusive and diverse exhibits to art museums. Has always loved to hear other people’s stories and tries to incorporate those stories into art practice. Wants to be part of the virtual conversations to learn more about other people’s stories. Remembers growing up learning about folktales from Africa and learning about different cultures. In high school, got to learn a little bit about apartheid and saw parallels with the civil rights movement in the Americas. Hopes to connect with like-minded people who are looking to integrate social justice work into educational settings. Want to learn about the strategies that people in South Africa are using to deal with their challenges.
Senior, Global Studies and Chinese
Michigan State University
Interested in engaging students from Stellenbosch in meaningful and rich conversations because it provides opportunities to broaden own personal horizons while helping to educate others. Looking to hear thoughts about Pan Africanism and what that means to others. The transnational dialogues hold promise for considering and rethinking the frameworks and perspectives that exists globally and cross-culturally. Believes that the current and ever present thickening globality that permeates all aspects of everyone’s lives makes it important to take into account the beliefs, ideals, and knowledge of others. Being a part of the Ubuntu Dialogues is an opportunity not only to rethink aspects of one’s positionality and how they impact society, but also view the impacts of the dynamics within South Africa critically and actively.
Junior, Biochemistry and Arabic
Michigan State University
Bengali and Muslim but born and grew up in the U.S. – sometimes I feel like I’m neither Bengali nor American, but if I had to choose a home, it would always be the U.S…one part of me that makes me look truly foreign is the fact that I wear a headscarf. Identity, including being a woman, have had the largest impact on shaping own perspectives and formative experiences. Drawn to the Ubuntu Dialogues by the desire to contribute to the project of re-imagining current realities through cross-cultural communication, but also to learn from the lived experiences of other young people from across the world. Wrestling with these questions: are we really different? What does it mean to be human, and does the answer depend on one’s circumstances? How do the struggles that black South Africans face to realize their human rights and political freedoms compare with those of black Americans? Participated in the MSU Dialogues program last year.
5th year PhD, IBIO and EEBB Based at the Kellogg Biological Station
Michigan State University
2012: studied abroad in South Africa – spent semester doing ecological research, primarily in Kruger National Park, and took a South Africa history class. In 2013, moved to Namibia for a year and half – worked at a biological field station in the Namib Desert running science training programs for elementary through master’s students and supporting environmental research programs – worked with multiple South African researchers and took several trips to South Africa and Lesotho for both work and leisure. Dissertation work is on the microbial ecology of the Namib Desert. Has returned 6 times in the last three years on 5-week trips. Interested in maintaining a long-term professional presence in Namibia and southern Africa. Participated in 2 MSU Dialogues on race and racism in the U.S. Co-facilitating an UG race dialogue group this semester. The Ubuntu Dialogues will provide an opportunity to engage with the issues of race in the southern African context outside of personal research and informal conversations. Looking to do more reflective work on return trips to Namibia and South Africa.
Stellenbosch University Participants
Masters Student, Dept. of History
Research Project: Biography of an Uncharted People. Served as an intern at the Robben Island Museum and is a participant in the Stellenbosch University / KU Leuven Think Tank. Speaks English and Afrikaans and basic Zulu and French.
Bryan U. Kauma
PhD Candidate, Dept. of History
Research interests: African Studies, Peasantry and Agrarian studies, Climate change and Food security, Social, Environmental and Economic history, Race, Culture, Class and Identity studies and nation development. Master of Arts Degree in African Economic History, University of Zimbabwe, 2015-16.
Dissertation Title: A socio-economic study of the Matobo District in Zimbabwe, 1980 to 2015. Speaks English, Ndebele and Shona
Masters Student, Dept of History
Works at Africa Open Institute for Music and Innovation, Stellenbosch University. Completed the Ashley Kriel Youth Leadership Development Course at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Worked as an intern at the Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert (FVZS) Institute for leadership development, and a student assistant at the International Students of Stellenbosch Programme.
PhD Student, Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation
Research Project: Using the arts as a mode of cultural representation in the community of Jagersfontein where I started working as a student clinical psychologist. As a form of social responsiveness to some of the challenges I witnessed in Jagersfontein I established a Gumboots Dance group with the youth. The research involves the inclusion of indigenous knowledge and voices to address the deficit created by dominant discourses of knowledge production.
Masters Student, Sociology
Research thesis: What is ‘quality’? Contemporary understandings of ‘quality’ education in public schools in Stellenbosch. Work part-time as an Information Governance Student Assistant at the University’s Centre for Institutional Permission. Serves on the Humanities Research Ethics Committee representing the ‘student’ voice on the Committee. I review and write reports pertaining to a researcher’s ethical considerations related to Promotion of Access to Information Act (2 of 2000), the Protection of Personal Information Act (4 of 2013) and standard ethical guidelines from the WMA Declaration of Helsinki.
Masters Student, Psychology Dept. Public Development and Management
Works for the Commission for Gender Equality where he is Head of Communications. A member of the Cross Cultural Human Rights Network at Vrije University in the Netherlands. He recently published a chapter, Ubuntu-ism as the arbiter between cultural relativism and Universalism in the context of the right to development, in a book published by BRILL Publishers.
Honours Student, Social Anthropology
Works as a teaching assistant in Sociology and Social Anthropology. Worked as a volunteer assistant at a cleaning services company to gain experience in a professional work environment. Undertook research to gain a better understanding of legislation in the workplace as it relates to the employer and the employee. Speaks English, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, and basic proficiency of Afrikaans and SeSotho.
PhD Candidate, Dept of Education
Research: A feminist critique of Ubuntu as a philosophy of education: implications for citizenship education in Zimbabwe. Was a Mandela Scholar at Sussex University (2013/2014) and is currently a Sol Plaatjie Scholar at SU. Speaks Ndebele, Shona and is proficient in English and IsiZulu.
PhD Candidate, Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation
Research interest: the use of process drama in addressing issues of race and memory among Black born-frees in South Africa. Published a chapter on #FeesMustFall 2015 as an embodiment of social drama in Rioting and Writing, published by Wits Society Work and Development Institute. I use drama in different social contexts with the intention of activating communities. I am a development practitioner with a passion for radio production, and writing, directing, and performance.
Missionary, mentor, life coach, advisor. Served as chair of the Ubuntu Christian Assemble and the Solid Foundation. Also served as an HIV and AIDS counsellor at Stellenbosch University. Works as a missionary of Power of Kingdom Salvation Movement. Speaks English, Zulu, Sotho, and is proficient in Afrikaans.
5 OCTOBER 2019
What do we talk about when we talk about Ubuntu?
In the first session, the facilitators’ intention was to create a space for the participants to get an understanding of who they were in conversation with, and to briefly explore their understanding of Ubuntu in the context of their own experiences.
By way of introduction to one another, facilitators asked the participants to share their hopes and fears for the Ubuntu dialogues they were about to engage in. The most widely shared concern among participants from both campuses was that the conversation will be limited to the formally convened space, and that the time allocated for the dialogue sessions was not sufficient.
In the brief discussion to serve as a starting point for exploring the concept of Ubuntu in the next three sessions, participants talked about Ubuntu as a functional, fluid, and dynamic concept. One participant described it as a coping mechanism within marginalised and minority groups. Some participants warned against romanticising or simplifying the concept. A participant from MSU said the approach to Ubuntu in the US is as an intellectual concept. In this context, he said, it becomes devoid of emotion, and disconnected from an embodied experience.
12 OCTOBER 2019
Racial discrimination and the case for reparations
In preparation for the second dialogue, the facilitators asked the participants to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, The Case for Reparations, which appeared in The Atlantic in June 2014. See the document here: pdf link
The facilitators also sent a video clip to the students in which Trevor Noah comments on the response to the sentencing of Amber Guyger, the White, female police officer who shot and killed a young Black man, Botham Jean, when she mistook him for an intruder in her apartment: See the video here.
The objective of the session was to explore similarities between racial discrimination in the United States and South Africa, and the potential for reparations to compensate for persistent injustice over hundreds of years.
The conversation started with a reflection on the way in which participants identified themselves in the first dialogue session. The question centred around the meaning of identity, and what identity means in terms of making connections to others or maintaining categories of being an(other). For some participants, laying claim to an identity was a way of staying connected to others. If you cannot claim your identity, these participants argued, you may feel isolated because your identity sets you apart. Some participants pointed to the tension between self-identification and labelling by others. The way in which you assert a certain identity is an empowering act because it is self-proclaimed. Labelling on the other hand, is disempowering because it is imposed by others and society. Self-proclaimed identity, some argued, can also be limiting even though it is strongly tied to experience. In terms of Ubuntu, some participants argued, identity starts with the community; that is where your identity gets constructed before you construct your own identity.
The second half of the dialogue was directed to the issue of reparations and its place to bring about healing. Participants spent some time talking about managing the reparation process, and how to attach monetary value to the act of repair. The notion of healing, or overcoming injustice is a lifelong process, said one participant. “How do you put a price tag on that?”
19 OCTOBER 2019
Racism on campus – the meaning of Ubuntu in the face of discrimination
The third conversation continued the theme around the meaning of identity in the conversation about Ubuntu. In preparation for this session, the students to watch the video, Luister, which was produced in 2015 to represent experiences of Black students on the campus of Stellenbosch University. See the video here.
The facilitator started the dialogue by asking students from MSU to talk about how the video resonated with the experience of Black students or minority groups on their own campuses or campuses around the USA. The participants talked about language, and how language, even in a mono-lingual environment can be used as an exclusionary device. The US participants also recognised the frustration with how the university management responded to complaints about racism and incidents of race-based aggression – macro and micro – on the campus.
Directing the conversation to Ubuntu, the participants talked about possibilities for “outsiders” to be seen as incorporated in the practice of Ubuntu. The term “outsider” seemed to be used in the sense of unrepentant, or habitual perpetrators of injustice. One of the white participants of MSU asked a question about the ownership of the word, Ubuntu. He said that he felt uncomfortable to claim the word: “I do not feel I have ownership of the word, and I do not need to have ownership of it. We can learn from it, but it was developed in a different context.”
25 OCTOBER 2019
Reflections on Ubuntu
Participants raised the following issues that emerged from the three conversations:
- Ubuntu is part of a “cohesive moral system” that requires an ethical commitment and “moral responsibility”. On this basis, those who do not adhere to this system of ethics exclude themselves from a community governed by Ubuntu principles.
- The issue of who can claim Ubuntu as a value system emerged again from a white participant who felt claiming the system will amount to cultural appropriation. Another participant told of his experience as a Rwandan refugee in Malawi where he experienced a sense of caring and inclusion that he describes as Ubuntu, while at the same time experiencing the exclusionary effects of xenophobia. One participant raised the issue of inter-generational experiences of history as a marker for interpretations of Ubuntu.
- What does a successful social movement look like? What was gained from pushbacks against injustice in South Africa and the United States? In the United States, there seems to have been a backlash following the Presidency of Barack Obama, the activities of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and demands for the dismantling of Confederate monuments. Are there similar pushbacks in South Africa following protest movements like “Rhodes Must Fall” and calls for the redistribution of land? What has been the success of these movements in delivering sustained social change, and what are their limitations?
- One US participant raised the election of President Trump after the Presidency of Barack Obama as an example of the strength and power of structural racism. Another participant from South Africa proposed that there were always trade-offs for the victories of progressive movements. Free education on tertiary level, he argued, has consequences for the resources available on other levels of education.
- The contradiction between a sense of belonging within particular identity groups (racial, ethnic, language, gender, and nationality) and the idea of a common humanity underpinning the notion of Ubuntu. Who does the concept of Ubuntu include and who does it exclude?