There is much controversy about how ubuntu should be precisely understood. However, among many self-described supports of ubuntu, there are some themes that stand out.The ethic associated with ubuntu clearly instructs one to develop one’s humanness, to live a genuinely human way of life.
How is one to do that? Mainly by prizing communal relationships with others.
For one, this means identifying with others, which involves being close, belonging, participating, experiencing life as bound up with others, considering oneself a part of the group. For another, it means exhibiting solidarity with others by being sympathetic, giving to others and acting for others’ sake.
It would be odd to say that someone exhibited ubuntu if he failed to share a way of life with others or to care for their quality of life.
Unfortunately, the state has been failing on both counts. Immediately after the tragedy, it was quick to help bury the dead and to offer counselling to their families. However, since then the state has often distanced itself from citizens and expressed indifference toward them.
First, recall that the state’s initial inclination was to support attendance by families only for the first session of the Farlam Commission investigative hearings, citing no legal requirement to do anything at all in this respect. After public outcry, the Minister of Justice Radebe backtracked. But even now the state enables only one family member to attend, which means that she cannot easily respect the tradition of not traveling alone while in mourning.
Second, remember that National Police Commissioner Phiyega ignored wailing families during hearings, staring straight ahead rather than acknowledging them, let alone trying to comfort them. When asked why she did not reach out to distraught families, she is reported to have snapped, ‘I am not here for that. I am here for the commission and the commission only.’
Third, the state is paying for legal representation on the part of the police, but is refusing to pay for legal representation for the strikers and their families, again citing no legal requirement to do so. Miners have had to go to court to try to force the state to pay for expensive advocates, so far without success, and ultimately will have to appeal to the Constitutional Court to make the state do so.
Fourth, suppose (for the sake of argument!) that the state is correct that its use of force at Marikana was entirely justified in response to miner aggression. Even so, the state has not to my knowledge thoroughly explored how it could avoid a similar occurrence in the future by, say, seeking out non-violent measures in response to upheaval.
If one were to ask the state why it has not acted in light of something like ‘Never again!’, the probable reply would be that current law and policy do not require it to do so.
The recurrent appeal by state officials to the presence or absence of a rule for their actions does not comport with anubuntu ethic. After all, legality is one thing, morality is another. Surely, state officials should do the right thing, even when the rules do not require them to do so.
By ubuntu, the right thing for state officials to be doing at this point is to rebuild community, to foster reconciliation. If prizing relationships of sharing and caring is what matters, then the state’s central response to conflict should be to repair broken relationships and to do so in light of a transparent understanding of how parties to the conflict have treated one another.
It follows that a state guided by ubuntu would readily support family attendance at the investigative hearings, as a way to foster reconciliation between them and the police.
It would also be quick to fund legal representation for the miners and their families, as the truth about what happened at Marikana is unlikely to be revealed if there are lawyers to represent only one side, the police.
Furthermore, an ubuntu-oriented state would not hesitate to express sympathy for the plight of innocent families as well as to adopt a systematic plan to do all it can never to repeat the traumatic event.
Notice that the state could have done all these things while remaining agnostic about what happened at Marikana and waiting for the pronouncement of the Farlam Commission. The government need not admit guilt on the part of police in order to reach out to those scarred by the tragedy and seek to rebuild communal relationships with them.
Doing so would exhibit humanness.
Thaddeus Metz is Humanities Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. References for claims in this article can be obtained by email at email@example.com.
[This is a mildly revised version of ‘No Ubuntu in Marikana Hearings,’
New Age 16 August 2013, p. 19]