Ubuntu

The past few nights have seen horrifying scenes of destruction across London. Violence on an unprecedented level is taking place, with the awful realisation that it is young people, some as young as 14 years old who are the perpetrators. So-called ‘copycat’ riots have been taking place in cities across the country. Innocent peoples homes and livelihoods have been destroyed as fires swept through businesses, shops, and flats. Communities are feeling the weight of despair, anger and sadness as they count the cost of the damage that has been caused.

The reason for the rioting? The justification for this behaviour? The change that is demanded by the ‘protesters’? This remains a mystery to many. What started as a peaceful protest by family and friends of Mark Duggan, apparently shot dead by the police, by nightfall had developed into civil unrest in the area of Tottenham in North London. This civil unrest quickly turned into large-scale rioting, with petrol bombs being thrown, stores being looted and set alight, and cars on fire. This scene was repeated the following night, on a far larger scale, with violence erupting in various areas of London. Then, shockingly again for a third night. As a writer in The Guardian today stated:

To behave in this manner young people have to believe they have no stake in the neighbourhood, and consequently no stake in wider society. This belief is compounded when it becomes a reality over generations, as it has done for some…

On Saturday, instead of imploding and turning inward and violent among themselves, as they have been doing for the past decade, the youths exploded. The trigger may well have been the killing of Mark Duggan and the insensitive treatment of his family, but this has been brewing for some time. The government cuts – especially the withdrawal of EMA; the new barrier of tuition fees; and rising youth unemployment have all added to their sense of isolation and lack of a stake in society.

There will never be justification for this kind of violence and the crimes that are being committed. However, the growing disillusionment and disconnectedness of urban youth is being revealed, leading to the most appalling scenes in many of our major cities.

There is an African philosophy called ‘Ubuntu’ , which translates as “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained ‘Ubuntu’ as this:

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

In the Shona language of Zimbabwe, Ubuntu is ‘unhu’. In the Tswana language of Botswana it is called ‘botho’. In Uganda and Tanzania it is ‘obuntu’. In fact, if you look at nearly all African cultures you will find there is some concept of Ubuntu present within the way they live their lives.

In the concept of Ubuntu, a crime committed by one individual on another extends far beyond the two individuals and has far-reaching implications to the people from among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes. Other manifestations of ubuntu are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames. This has the effect of banishing individualism and replacing it with a role in which the individual effectively stands for the people he comes from. The individual identity is replaced with the larger society-based identity within each person. Families are portrayed or reflected in the individual and this extends to villages, districts, provinces and regions. This places high demands on the individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the highest possible virtues that society strives for.

The concept of Ubuntu is beautiful. It is complex, difficult to fully comprehend, but ultimately inspiring. And worryingly lacking within ‘Western’ culture.

As we have witnessed the scenes coming out of London, the individuals perpetrating the violence, the thievery, the destruction, are acting in just that way: individualistic. Single-minded. Selfish. Without consideration or thought for others. Without a sense of how their acts impact anyone around them. Everything that is counter to Ubuntu. How did these young people become so disconnected?

The thought that Ubuntu doesn’t exist in large cities however was very much proven wrong by the existence of ‘community clean-up’ operations. Groups of people ready to change the awful happenings in their area. Groups of people ready at the break of dawn for ‘Operation Clean-Up’. Communities of people who will not allow the actions of individuals to have lasting impact on their lives. Communities ready to look after each other, help each other out, get those most affected by the violence back on their feet. Community. Caring. Selfless and thinking of those around them and the impact it has.

Ubuntu.

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