Ubuntu vs Covid-19

Photo: Xinhua/Hajarah Nalwadda

For Harvard economist, Dani Rodrik, everything will go back to how they were before Covid19. He suggests his article in April, titled “Remake the world?” If anything, positions and phenomena will be hardened rather than altered. 

South Africa, on the other hand, given its dire state, could well use this crisis and turn it into an opportunity to introduce change. It will be a golden opportunity to return to an understanding of ubuntu which the countries so desperately needs. 

During lockdown level 5, we saw this display of ubuntu so vividly. Communities rallied round to feed the poor and destitute. Even now, we see it in the men and women who are serving at the frontlines of the pandemic as medics, in our hospitals and putting themselves in harm’s way, in service of the community. Essential workers, placing themselves and their families at risk, for the rest of us to be fed, to report what is happening, and we dare not forget our educators.

However, as Rodrik suggests, our troubles, which we had before the onslaught of Covid19, have only been deepened. We see this nowhere better than in our healthcare and education systems. The trajectory that South Africa has been on for the last twenty-six years cannot be sustainable; not only from an economic point of view but also an ethical one.  

Kwame Gyekye, an African philosopher, in his work ‘Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience’, emphasised the importance of understanding what is right. Right, Professor Gyekye says, is to fulfil one’s duties towards the community first and foremost. While human rights may have corresponding duties, these human rights are right because of the implicit understanding and need for duty. 

Put differently, the “politics of rights” gives way to the “politics of duty”; duty towards the common good. The satisfaction of the common good is paramount to the actualisation of the individual/community’s rights, and it is only through this satisfaction of the common good, of the community, that the individual acquires personhood. Thus we see that personhood is dependent on that which is good or right for the community.

In practical terms, what does all of this mean? Take, for example, the social grant system in post-apartheid South Africa. Some economists and indeed the South African government believe that if you increase the amount of consumers, then you increase demand and thus the productivity of goods and services increases. To make people consumers, one needs to put money into their pockets in order for them to spend, the argument goes.

In Gyekyen terms, though this is only endowing people with the means to consume; just as one would endow them only with rights. Where is duty? As a consequence, to shift South Africa’s trajectory, we need to move towards a politics of duty. 

We must not only make people consumers, but we must make them producers as well. For Gyekye, people must not only consume or receive from the community that which they can, but they should also have an obligation towards the community to produce. 

Consumers and producers are, therefore, two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, up until now, we have only concentrated on the consumer side of things, and South Africa is where it is today because of this. Not only economically but very few people have a sense of duty towards their community. 

Investment in human capital then continues to be at the centre of South Africa’s challenges. Unless we are able to provide quality education and quality healthcare to people, we will continue to remain in the quagmire that we face. With solid knowledge, people will be able to become job-creators rather than job-seekers. 

However, even today, one must ask how much of our children’s curriculum concentrates on duty rather than rights. If anything, Covid19 should bring about a fundamental change in how we educate our children and treat our patients. South Africa must prove Rodrik wrong; it has no other choice.

Wesley Seale taught politics at UWC and Rhodes University. He writes from Beijing.