Living the spirit of Ubuntu

November 13,2018

In a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant, where calls for violence and punishment are seen as solutions to deep-rooted problems, it is important to take a step back and look at those...

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In a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant, where calls for violence and punishment are seen as solutions to deep-rooted problems, it is important to take a step back and look at those leaders and societies that achieved peace through reconciliation and truth, tolerance and compassion amidst hatred, animosity and heightened tensions.

One such society was South Africa – a brutal apartheid regime to which there was violent opposition. Society needed to come to peace through something more powerful and long lasting than violence – and that was humanity. Nelson Mandela found the antidote to violence in the traditional African humanist philosophy ‘Ubuntu’ – ie through caring, consideration and sharing.

According to a beautiful and touching story, the chief of a South African tribe was once asked the meaning of ‘Ubuntu’. “This cannot be explained by words”, the chief said. “Let me demonstrate it to you”. He then placed some fruit in a basket, under a solitary tree, and asked children of the tribe to participate in a race in which whoever could reach the basket first, would get all the fruit. He lined them all up and gave the start signal.

The children ran towards the basket, but then a strange thing happened. The child who came first stopped, and instead of keeping all the fruit for himself, waited for others to join him. Once together, the children sat down and happily shared the fruit. When asked why he had not simply eaten all the fruit himself, the child who came first replied: “I am because we are.” The chief explained: “Had the others not participated, there wouldn’t be any race at all, and no one could have come first.”

In another version of the same story, upon the signal to begin the race, the children instead of racing, simply held their hands together, walked down to the tree and once there, sat down and took their time to share the fruit with each other. When asked why they had done this, a young girl simply replied that, “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad.”

Nelson Mandela who was viewed as the personification of Ubuntu, explained the concept: “If one was to travel through a village, one didn’t have to ask for food or water but was simply given it, and taken care of.”

Ubuntu is the concept of all for one and one for all in which we can all prosper better when all of us prosper collectively. Ubuntu led, perhaps indirectly, to the evolution of notions of socialism and welfare states, societies based on empathy and collective prosperity – that is after all, the true essence of liberalism.

The truth is that Pakistan could do a little with Ubuntu at this time.

Our country has seen much conflict and wrong policies, and society is more divided today than it ever was in the past. Politicians and political parties oppose each other even on objectives that are in the national interest. Extremists do not see eye to eye with the government and the majority. Judges are being threatened and there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor.

Religious intolerance is on the rise. Rights of minorities are being stifled. Inter-provincial harmony sometimes still feels like a dream. There is discrimination and disparity even in education and health; this is obvious from the huge difference between the private and state run schools and educational institutions and private and government controlled hospitals. As a result, we are all becoming reactive instead of forward looking. Instead of trying to focus on remedies, the demand seem to be for vengeance or retribution. Everybody wants the other to be put in jail and hanged but there is little focus on redress.

It was Martin Luther King Jr who stated that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

In the spirit of Ubuntu what one needs to do is to find remedies mutually acceptable in a divided society. It is certainly not an easy task but it is a right mission. The irony is that we are not unified for Pakistan. We have forgotten the words of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah when he said that “Divided we fail. United we win.” This was Jinnah’s slogan for the new nation: “Unity, Faith and Discipline”. A slogan no different from the philosophy of Ubuntu. Later when Ziaul Haq changed the slogan to “Faith, Unity and Discipline”, the dissention on the basis of interpretation of faith brought intolerance in society.

We need a revolution of a state of mind which can only be achieved by a holistic approach working through the state and its institutions in tandem in the field of education, practising equality, respecting the dignity of humanity and tolerance. The disconnect between various segments of society has to be abridged: we should not become more estranged but reconcile our differences and understandings to forge a more prosperous journey ahead.

Pakistani culture has much in common with Ubuntu. Tolerance and humanity must be taught as a subject in all schools. At the same time, the initiative should be taken by parliament, which represents the nation. We see unpleasant, acerbic debates and shouting at each other in parliament. This can be controlled only by the order and exercise of discipline by the speaker. Self-restraint and criticism in parliamentary language should be the norm so that it becomes an example followed by other sections of society. Difference of opinion without hurting one another is possible. Each member can continuously remind himself/herself that “S/He is because parliament is.” All institutions also can adopt the same philosophy: “We are because Pakistan is.”

Dr Martin Luther King Jr seems to have understood the essence of the concept of Ubuntu when he said: “We are caught in an escapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The writer is a Supreme Court: advocate, former caretaker federal minister, and former president of the SCBA.



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