Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ubuntu - what is community, really?

It is Friday July 19th, 2008, and Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. I am in Cape Town, South Africa, and can see from my hotel Robben Island where Mandela spent 27 years in prison.

His crime: opposing a regime using the powers of a police state to impose an ideology. Ideology is conformist; it is communal righteousness that can brook no challenge from independent thought or mere personal whim. Certain truths apparently so brittle that they can’t survive a rough passage through the storms of human needs, passions and perceptions.

Mandela had a more indefatigable truth than the white Afrikaners did. He rose above communalism and racism – and the feelings arising from 27 years in prison – to lead South Africa away from a dark past.

Here among Mandela’s people – the Xhosa – the cultural frame for building community is “ubuntu”. The Cape Town paper this morning printed an essay from a journalist who visited Mandela’s home village, one rather isolated among hills and fields that was restful and open to the play of natural powers. “Ubuntu” thrives in such villages where you are what your surroundings make you. Expressed in you are others – ancestors, parents, friends, drumbeats, ceremonial honors, childhood games and hard work.

I had come to Cape Town for the quadrennial meeting of the International Society for Business, Economy and Ethics (ISBEE). Several of the scholarly paper presentations that caught my attention discussed African philosophy and ethical traditions. “Ubuntu” was described and highlighted as an anti-dote to Western self absorption with striving and getting ahead of the Joneses.

I could see the point. But one of the presenters – an American teaching in an African business school – made another point as well. “Ubuntu” like any community ethic comes with a price. The price is some degree of stultification and conformity to what the community believes and stands for. If there is too much “we”, what role can there be for the “I”?

“Ubuntu” also leads to fragmentation and rivalries as the circumference bounding the community expands to take in new communities. The question comes quickly: with whom do I experience “Ubuntu”? Just who is part of my “we”.

“Ubuntu” outside the mind and skills of Nelson Mandela seems no check on the divisiveness of tribalism. In Rwanda the “Ubuntu” of the Hutu did not extend to the Tutsis during the genocide.

Now in South Africa, Mandela’s legacy is being challenged by more limited spheres of “ubuntu”. Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, are Xhosa. The newly elected head of their political party – the ANC – is a Zulu. This man, Zuma, has been brought to trial for corruption and also accused of rape. As I arrived in Cape Town a few days ago, the papers reported that Zuma’s new team at the head of the ANC had sacked for no apparent reason the head of the Cape Town provincial administration. And the head of the ANC youth league, a Zuma ally, had called for the “killing” of a rival party seeking more constitutional checks and balances. What is needed, it was said, was a kind of cleansing, a transformation of the old ways into new ones, power structures more authentically African. Coming under instant criticism for his policy stance, this leader quickly backtracked and said he was only talking of “eliminating” such people.

My thought is to ask in seeking an authentic “ubuntu” based regime for South Africa after Mandela, who will be on the inside and who on the outside?

Friday, July 11, 2008

The View From Mountain House

In real estate the agents say that what counts is “location, location, location”. Sometimes that may be true for our understandings of the world as well. Our location can frame the path of our reflections. Consider walking along an ocean beach or setting in a mountain meadow. For many of us that context can lead to deeper, more inwardly centered, perceptions or, in a similarly restorative way, to looser flows of mental associations that lead us to more fundamental and lasting impressions of what is.

Mountain House in Caux, Switzerland, is such an influencing location. It is where the Caux Round Table started in 1986 and where, much earlier, retreats hosted in the Belle Epoch hotel perched high above Lake Laman (or to some, Lake Geneva) brought about new levels of acceptance between French and Germans, paving the way to a united Europe.

I was just there with some CRT colleagues in a retreat for scholars on Tuesday and Wednesday. They left on Wednesday night or early Thursday morning and I stayed on for a day before going to Warsaw. Thursday was a beautiful day – blue skies, a few touches of clean white clouds, warm sun- but not hot, breezes. And the view from the patio at Mountain House was magnificent; not so spectacular that you forgot yourself, but great (“magnus”) in vistas of high Alpine mountains, towns along the lake shore, the blue of the lake, and in clarity of light and perception.

And the sounds were of birds and the breezes in the leaves.

The hustle and bustle of humanity, the nitty-gritty, the details that provide cover and sustenance for the devils in our lives, were far away from consciousness. One felt a kind of open-ended, natural superiority in life. You could breathe in encouragement and breathe out doubts and anxieties, just as masters of meditation advise for our better health and well-being.

The view from Mountain House on such a day provides scope for our proper ambitions, making us once again masters of our fates and captains of our souls in a world that is conspiring to reduce us to trivia.

The view took me back to Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” which ends thusly:

Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree~
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.