Now that our trip to South Africa is completed I have been trying to organize some overall thoughts about the trip and the experience of leadership that has affected the political, economical, and social lives of so many South Africans. Even with the fall of apartheid, a racial system based on discrimination, there are strong lines between too many groups of people.
Apartheid had drawn strong lines between white, colored, and black people. Even after the fall of apartheid, there still seems to be a strong line between these groups that is now drawn by economic status rather than race. Poverty in this nation is extreme with the poor living in conditions where even such staples as clean water and sanitation are limited. Employment opportunities are limited as are access to education, job training, and other vehicles to help improve the lives of these groups. Corruption in the democratically elected government stifles many attempts to raise the standard of living. To build a stronger South Africa, the untapped potential living in informal housing will need to be engaged.
In South Africa we heard a word from several of the different leaders with whom we visited. This word is Ubuntu. Ubuntu was defined to us as, "I am because we are" and stressed that no one person exists as an individual but always as part of a community. If I demean someone, I also demean myself. As one person's welfare rises or falls, my welfare is directly impacted. I believe that this concept is one which has helped control the potential for violence in this nation.
As apartheid fell, a great deal of tension arose in the nation as a regime of racism, hatred, and fear drew to a close. The challenge arose as these groups that had been target of the regime rose up to speak against the injustice they faced. There is always danger when an oppressed people rise up and discover their strength. The threat of reprisal, of vengeance, of inflamed righteous indignation was everywhere. Its why a great a deal of credit needs to be given to the leadership that were able to help channel and control these emotions preventing a terrible backlash from plunging the nation into an even more violent and bloody time (It is important to note that there has been, and continues to be violence in South Africa. Our group missed an opportunity to worship in a region where violence was a very real threat during a lorry strike that was taking place in the country). As difficult as the transition has been in South Africa, it could have been much worse.
The concept of Ubuntu could be a mitigating factor in helping to control the violence in the nation. The realization that the oppressor is also a slave to the system of fear has helped the people reach out to the ruling powers that have have denied justice for others. There is a connection between oppressed and oppressor and a desire to liberate both groups from a system that would promote hate and intolerance. I believe this may be the single greatest resource for the transition of South Africa.
And I believe it is also an important lesson that we living in the USA can take with us. Our nation is still reeling from a strong economic recession. The Occupy movement while quieted has revealed the disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (By the way, by South African standards we are all pretty much haves in America). One of my biggest concerns is with the increased sense of polarization in our society. It is not enough to be a conservative or liberal now. Our society has become fragmented to the point where it is difficult for us to discover or even talk about our shared community. We even disagree over what the community is, the lines that create it, or our inter-connectedness in our communities. We have very little understanding or appreciation for Ubuntu. Republicans blast Democrats. Liberals blame conservatives. Paranoia and extremism clouds our views and understanding of so many issues. In many ways, we have abandoned common sense for party loyalty. We vilify the opposition because they are different from us. When we do this, we abandon our sense of community and bring harm to our own self and to others.
Americans could use Ubuntu in their personal lives, in their communal lives, and in our financial world. Honestly, I could not help seeing a strong parallel between this and the story line of "A Bug's Life" What will we grasshoppers do when the ants wake up and realize that we need them as much as they need us?