President Mbeki recalls Steve Biko?s vision of ubuntu


By Vivian Warby

President Thabo Mbeki has called on South Africans to value ubuntu, meaning a sense of community and humanity, over a culture of individualism, as envisioned by the Black Consciousness icon Steve Biko.

Addressing the 8th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, President Mbeki said a culture of individualism, as opposed to one of ubuntu, meant all the tasks that Mr Biko set when he called for an uprising against racism as well as an assertion of pride and dignity, had not yet been met.

The lecture, which took place at the University of Cape Town, was held on the 30th anniversary of the leader?s death.

President Mbeki said during the years of the liberation struggle many voices had raised concerns about social ills such as crime and the particular forms it assumed, such as the rape of children and women, abuse of the elderly, and callous murders which "show a disdain for human life".

"Similarly many have expressed concern at what seems to be an entrenched value system centred on the personal acquisition of wealth at all costs and by all means, including willful resort to corruption and fraud,' said President Mbeki.

"These negative social phenomena and others, which occasioned the call for moral regeneration, have suggested that our society has been captured by a rapacious individualism which is corroding our social cohesion, which is repudiating the value and practice of human solidarity, and which totally rejects the fundamental precept of ubuntu.'

President Mbeki asked whether this was the kind of society Mr Biko visualised, and for which he gave up his life.

"When he wrote that, 'the philosophy of Black Consciousness... expresses group pride and the determination of the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self? surely he did not imagine envisage self charaterised by the rapacious and venal individualism we had just mentioned,' explained Mr Mbeki.

"To reclaim and rediscover the African identity and build a society that is new not only it political and economic arrangements, but also in terms of the values that uphold, somewhat tentative calls have been made to re-educate our society about the ubuntu value system.'

Mr Mbeki said ubuntu, which reminds us that "a person is a person through other people', does not allow for an individualism that overrides the collective interest of a community.

He said that ubuntu places a premium on the values of human solidarity, passion and human dignity.

It is a lived philosophy which enables members of the community to achieve higher results through collective effort.

"It is firmly based on recognising the humanity in everyone.

"It emphasises the importance of knowing oneself and accepting a uniqueness in all of us so as to render meaningless the complexes of inferiority and superiority. Indeed, ubuntu connects all of humanity irrespective of ethnicity, racial origin," he said.

A new value system that must replace the those that emerged during the long years of Colonialism and Apartheid, still needed to be infused into our society, he added.

In this regard the President quoted Mr Biko who wrote: "In rejecting western values... we are rejecting those things that are not only foreign to us but they seek to destroy the most cherished of our beliefs - that the cornerstone of society is man himself - not just his welfare, not his material wellbeing but just man himself with all his ramifications.'

Mr Biko further wrote of a rejection of the "power-based society of the westerner that seems ever concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension we believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in the field of human relationships.

"The great powers of the world may have done wonders by giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great still has to come from Africa - giving the world a more human face.

"We dare not allow the notable vision handed down to us by the great titans of our struggle to perish,' said President Mbeki.

"From the gigantic death of Stephen Bantu Biko 30 years ago today must, in time, arise an enormous birth. Stephen Bantu Biko died but his vision has not perished.'