Address by Minister Pallo Jordan to UBUNTU Seminar, Boschendal

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
19 Oct 2007

Thank You, Programme Director,
Former President Kenneth Kaunda,
Mr. Whitey Jacobs,
Advocate Macontywa,
Traditional leaders here present,
Honoured guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Heritage is one of the primary sources of identity, imparting to communities a sense of belonging. That South Africa is culturally diverse is readily recognized. Less evident is the strengths our society can derive from that diversity.

Our South African Heritage draws on three continents and that must be readily accepted as the verdict of history. Today I wish to draw attention to a humanism, that affirms the dignity and worth of all people, based on our human capacity to reason, as the connecting thread among these traditions.

The African dimension is best expressed in the widely held value derived from pre-colonial Africa: “Umntu, ngumntu ngabantu” – You affirm your own humanity by recognizing the humanity of others.

From Europe, along with much of the muck of colonial and racial domination, South Africa also imported the ideas and values associated with the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The bearers of these ideals more often than not were Christian missionaries as well as a few persons of letters, like Thomas Pringle, who emigrated to South Africa during the 19th century and helped light the torch of press freedom in our country. Later immigrants brought with them other humanist traditions from various parts of Europe.

In addition to the slaves the Dutch imported to South Africa from east Asia, these unwilling immigrants carried in their baggage the Islamic faith and the intellectual traditions associated with it. A second wave of immigrants from Asia during the latter half of the 19th century were the Indian indentured labourers and free passengers, to whom South Africa owes Mahatma Gandhi, who arrived in our country as an eager young barrister but left it as the 20th century’s best known freedom fighter.

What we call “South African” is the outcome this dynamic interaction, over some three centuries, among three major streams of human experience on African shores.

The Dutch settlers who began arriving in South Africa after 1652 were the agents of the Dutch East India Company. They came from a Netherlands that had recently thrown off the Spanish yoke and was emerging as one of western Europe’s leading trading nations and as a maritime power. The spice trade with south east Asia was the primary business of the DEIC and the settlement at the Cape was originally conceived to facilitate that trade Like virtually all of the European colonial powers the DEIC used its colonies to address a number of social and political problems in its home country. The more motivated among its poorer classes, the non-assimilable immigrants from other parts of Europe, the criminal elements, as well as adventurers of all stripes were the people exported to the colonies. Most of these persons and their families were from the non-propertied classes in the Netherlands. Others were fugitives from religious persecution – like the French Huguenots - others had been mercenaries in the employ of the DEIC, yet others were bold spirits who felt they could carve out a future for themselves in the colonies.

The contradictory impact of colonialism on pre-colonial societies can be discerned even during those first two centuries of Dutch overlordship in South Africa. The Netherlands that spawned the first European settlers in South Africa was a Protestant country. Consequently it had become the home of many others from Europe whose religious beliefs were suspect or who were the victims of persecution. Baruch Spinoza, the sage of Amsterdam, was originally a Spanish Jew. In Spain where the Inquisition was very active, someone of his faith could not have survived, except by conversion to Christianity. The Spinoza family tried every sort of artifice to escape the unwelcome attentions of the Inquisitors, but the best assurance was settling in Amsterdam, after the Spanish had been driven out. There Spinoza was allowed to practice his religion freely.

After the Edict of Fountainbleau (1685), the Protestants of France were once again subjected to renewed persecution as non-Catholics. They too found refuge in the Protestant Netherlands from whence they fanned out – some going to the British colonies in the Americas, some to South Africa. They settled in these valleys of the Cape and have left their imprint on them – wine, place names and the cuisine.

But this very enlightended attitude of religious tolerance had its obverse face. The Dutch protestants found it unacceptable to enslave fellow Christians, but the enslavement of Muslims and the adherents of other religions was common. Thus, in the Cape, the Dutch settlers undertook no missionary work among the indigenous people, let alone try to convert their slaves drawn from south east Asia, the Indian Ocean islands, India and Sri Lanka. Islam consequently became an attractive option for many slaves in the Cape.

The first mission work among the indigenous Khoikhoi was undertaken by missionaries from the Moravian church, who established a mission station, whose tri-centennial we are marking this year, at Genadendal. Being the direct off-spring of the Taborite movement led by John Huss in the country then known as Bohemia, the Moravians preached an egalitarian doctrine. Genadendal thus became not only an early outpost of Christianity, but also a safe haven for runaway slaves, for the marginalized – like the impoverished among the Khoi-khoi -- within the emergent Dutch colony. Genadendal was also the well- spring of progressive ideas in South Africa.

Honoured Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The struggle against colonial domination and racial oppression is an important dimension of our South African Heritage, which has its roots in the triple heritage of our country. In the two great ethical and moral traditions we have been bequeathed from the Middle East and Europe, the Judeo-Christain-Muslim and the Greek, are the two mythical figures of Adam and Prometheus. There is no need to recount the stories about these two as I am certain we are all familiar with them. In the respective traditions from which they derive, both Adam and Prometheus are cast as sinners, or as disobedient.

By eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam commits the gravest act of hubris, and is judged as aspiring to be like God. That ends the age of innocence for himself and Eve, and they are both cast out from the Garden of Eden and have to earn their living by the sweat of their brows. By being forced to work to earn a living Adam, Eve and their off-spring commence the process of adapting the world around them to themselves, rather than they, like other animals, adapting to their environment.

Prometheus too is guilty of this heinous crime, He steals the secret of how to tame fire from the Gods, and hands it to humankind, thus emancipating the human race from darkness. Once tamed, fire ceases to be a threat, but becomes one of humankind’s most effective instruments. With fire humanity could fend off the cold of night and winter. Fire enabled humanity to smelt metals. And. Like Adam and his off-spring is better able to change the world to suit himself. For his hubris, Prometheus is chained to the rock where the vulture pecks at his liver!

Both these traditions sanction an act of disobedience as deliverance from human pre-history, thus planting the seed of a key humanist value – the imperative to test the validity of any idea, institution or practice through our power to reason rather than on the basis of faith.

[One of the dreadful ironies of this first decade of the 21st century is the extent to which the very existence of the humanity today is threatened by the countervailing power of blind faith which might well culminate in an act of obedience – some poor misguided soul, who will plead, “ I was merely following orders” and press a button that could destroy us all.]

The vision of a new South Africa derived from the struggle for freedom had evolved over the second half of the 19th century. The Black (African, Indian and Coloured) political movements that pioneered the democratic struggle in South Africa were initially led by an educated elite who had embraced modernism as universal.

“Modernism” has been used in two senses, one technological, the other socio-political. Its technolgical dimension assumed humanity would incrementally attain mastery over nature by the application of science and technology. This is a view rooted in the belief that, provided it is not circumscribed by either secular or clerical authority, human endeavour has unlimited possibilities. Modernism is also rationalist, asserting that reasoned debate, inquiry and investigation are the only reliable basis of human knowledge.

Modernism in South Africa had two loci. One was the urban areas, where modern technology was visibly opening new frontiers and drawing millions of Blacks into a vast economic system that spans the world. The other was the school room, where the elite itself had acquired the knowledge and skills, as well as the self confidence to challenge the White rulers on their own terms.

The Black political elites advocated a society in which the ability and worth of a person would be judged on the basis of their performance rather than ascribed from some alleged racial characteristics. Such a society, they believed, would encourage progress by rewarding talent, Black or White.

The political leadership of the Black working class has also been unabashedly modernist. The working class, like the productive forces it mans, is the object of a continuing process of renewal, improvement and refinement. The demands and rhythms of the economy require that the working class constantly change and adapt itself to technological progress. Thus while not denying the brutalising impact of industrialization on pre-capitalist African societies, the working class leadership have preferred to focus on industrialization’s transformative and progressive aspects.

But progress is not a comfortable journey. It disrupted the lives of entire communities and continuous, often rapid change produced profound uncertainties. Because people tend to prefer the predictability of the known present to the maelstrom of change, large sections of society have recourse to tradition and its symbols for warmth and comfort. The rationalist bias of modernism includes the interrogation of traditional belief systems, customs and accepted mores. Such questioning inevitably also undermined the colonial order by subjecting authority to the scrutiny of reason.

South Africa’s Asian heritage introduced and pioneered radically new ways of engaging with illegitimate power. The methods of conducting political struggle that have been employed by the oppressed people of South Africa have a very interesting pedigree. What is more, it is important to underline that these tactics were actually conceived and first tested on South African soil!

“Satyagraha” – the quest for truth and right by bearing witness – was conceived by Mohandas Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer, when the authorities in the Transvaal colony, as it was then called, imposed Pass Laws on the Indian people. That was 100 years ago. Satyagraha, as a concept and as a means of waging struggle, would have withered on the vine had it not been for the response Gandhi received from the Indian population of South Africa.

Civil disobedience, that is deliberately breaking a law in order to make it unworkable and unenforceable, was first tested by the thousands who responded to Gandhi’s call in 1907.

The power of Satygraha lay in the willingness of the practitioner to endure physical, psychological and emotional pain, even humiliation. It taught the practitioner how to conquer fear and to transcend self pity. It is the expression of a different type of courage that does not require bravado, but relies on a profound sense of self-confidence, not only in one’s self, but also in the justice of one’s cause!

Those first volunteers, whose numbers were swelled by others when they were carted off to jail, had no way of knowing that they had set in train a movement that was to sweep the world. From them sprang the millions who followed Gandhi when he returned to India; the thousands who followed Nelson Mandela, when as Volunteer-in-Chief, he led the Defiance Campaign in 1952; the millions who followed Martin Luther King, first in the Montgomery Bus Boycott then in thousands of other campaigns, big and small, that we refer to as the Civil Rights Movement in the USA ; the millions who year after year marched from Aldermaston to London until the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed; the thousands who clog the streets in our day during meetings of the G8 and the World Trade Organisation to protest the inequitable terms of trade imposed on the developing countries.

Civil Disobedience is a proudly South African product and South Africa owes it to its citizens of Indian descent! As Gandhi explained: “….the doctrine came to mean vindication of Truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent…”

But it is important to underscore, that in virtually every struggle for freedom, apart from the structural violence of oppression, the main source of violence has invariably been the oppressor and not the oppressed.

Humanism, reason and modernism per se, might well be sound, but their social and political relevance arises only in a context where illegitimate authority can be persuaded to submit to them. The post-enlightenment political ideals of popular sovereignty, government by the consent of the governed, and equality before the law collided directly with the institutions of colonialism. To modernists, the corollary of the notion that some people are born to rule (either by virtue of their race or familial descent), is that others are born to be ruled. Equality of all humans, the foundational principle of every struggle against imperial power, let us recall, was first pronounced in the American War of Independence. These principles interrogated the moral basis of both colonial domination and the legitimacy of traditional rulers.

Satyagraha, viewed from this perspective, is as subversive as the actions of Adam and Prometheus. But its purpose is to compel the illegitimate ruler or government to recognize the humanity of those they had subjugated.

South Africa’s triple heritage has imparted to our country many of its distinctive features. It is visible in the architecture of the South African landscape, that bears the features of the three continents; we find it in our South Africa cuisine where the textures, aromas and tastes of Africa, Asia and Europe have been melded into something new or co-exist comfortably side by side; it is best expressed in the Afrikaans language – a language that evolved in the mouths of Asian slaves, indigenous Khoikhoi and the Africans as they adapted the lingua franca of the slave quarters, Dutch, to their own uses. But its finest fruit is the struggle for freedom and democracy which drew on the best in all three these traditions to bring an end to apartheid.

Humanism proceeds from the premise that all human life is of equal value and esteem. Hence the emphasis we continuously lay on the pre-colonial African ethos that holds – Umntu, ngumntu, ngabantu – You affirm your own humanity by recognizing the humanity of others. We find the same conception of humanity underscored in the writings of a 19th century social and political philosopher who was voted the most influential thinker of the second millennium A.D. by the audiences of the BBC World Services:

“To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for humanity the root is humanity itself… hence… the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which humans are debased, enslaved forsaken, despicable beings...”

It was such transcendent values that motivated a party like the United Independence Party (UNIP) of Zambia to throw open the doors to wave after wave of African freedom fighters from all over southern Africa.

In this region, every liberation movement worth its salt, found a home on the soil of Zambia, under the leadership of that illustrious son of Africa, Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda. For its contribution to the African liberation struggle, Zambia suffered every form of overt and covert aggression. Those of us who personally were beneficiaries of Zambian hospitality, will be eternally grateful to the Zambian people for the sacrifices they made on our behalf.

Ubuntu, that is humanism, in the South Africa of today, necessarily has to incorporate and embrace all the healthy elements of humanism, conscious of the reality that its roots lie in many different parts of the globe.