Bearing witness to South African’s supposed liberal party’s members debate on ubuntu has been a bit like watching the ugly sisters trying on the glass slipper. It doesn’t fit yet they keep trying and blame the shoe for being the wrong size.
“Ubuntu is ill defined and Africanness is not in the dictionary, so we can’t say whether they’re compatible with liberalism,” one group says. “And anyway there’s no such thing as ubuntu because it’s a vague politically correct abstraction and even if there were, as far as liberalism is concerned, there is no such thing as ubuntu because it is collectivist.”
The other group fires back. “Ubuntu is ill defined but there’s enough to say it is a liberal value because it’s about human solidarity, just like liberalism. It is not inherently collectivist because subscribers to the notion self-identify as such. And ubuntu can be expressed outwards, from the individual as part of a community and not imposed on an individual by a community. And anyway liberalism is not static.”
These aren’t direct quotes. I’m paraphrasing two extremes in the debate. Of course the reason why the party’s members keep trying to figure ubuntu and other elements of African identity out is the same reason they now dance and sing at party conferences, speak African languages (and I don’t mean Afrikaans, which isn’t an African language), and try to reverse engineer the legacy of the socialist, collectivist Steve Biko in an attempt to claim black consciousness as a liberal value. They do this to win over the prince, the black vote.
The school of thought of the first group, let’s call them classic liberals, says forget the glass slipper, let’s convince the prince that we, as we are, are what he needs, not some skittish Cinderella who flirted with him and ditched him one minute before midnight, circa 27 April 1994. Classic liberals insists the party should not abandon its supposedly liberal roots and values for the expediency of sounding and looking like Cinderella and fitting into her shoes just to trick the prince into a blissful, open-opportunity marriage.
Indulge me. Extending metaphors until they die a horrible death is my thing.
The other group embraces a cuddlier, more progressive liberalism, which isn’t as staunchly individualist as that of the former. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced it’s liberalism at all because without some intellectual contortionism, calling it liberalism makes it inherently contradictory. This group we can call the social liberals.
Either way, in the debate, classic and social liberals agree. Ubuntu and Africanness are ill defined. But no more ill defined, I posit, than liberalism, given the two diametric views in the debate that both claim to be liberal. This betrays, in one group more than the other, what can only be described as cultural supremacy or arrogance, which goes something like this: unlike ubuntu, liberalism is codified, written, has known philosophers and adherents, and is practiced (sort of), thus it is a “real” philosophy.
Be that as it may, all these wonderful things still haven’t prevented the very definition of liberalism from being contested and there emerging at least two starkly divergent views both claiming to be steeped in the philosophy, has it? And this cultural supremacy denies the existence of the lived experiences (because philosophies are nothing if not lived) of the many to whom ubuntu and Africanness are as clear as daylight. Thus my point: that a philosophy or an identity is contested and has been wielded to mean supposedly different things to different people doesn’t make it ill defined. It makes it contested, especially when it’s been wielded by political forces.
Ubuntu is a contested philosophy. And, despite what some supposed liberals might say, ubuntu is a philosophy and not “an attempt to pass an unsophisticated concept as a philosophical position that provides distinct ethical and perhaps even metaphysical answers.”
However, I won’t mount a defence of ubuntu as I’m tempted to, at least not yet, not in this post, because liberalism’s assault on ubuntu is actually not about ubuntu at all. It’s about group identity and its use in identity politics.
Had the African National Congress built a massive loyal support base around religion, gender, Belieberism, or any other element of group identity and used that to rally the troops, silence detractors, shame those in the group to keep them in line and justify disquieting pronouncements, the great South African liberal debate would not be on whether ubuntu and Africanness are illiberal. It would be on whether religion, gender, Justin Bieber or any other group identity that has political currency are illiberal.
For in identity politics, which is commonplace the world over, the efficacy with which you appeal to group identities and demographics, not ideas, determines electoral success. In such an environment, a party ostensibly wary of peddling in group identities (save for its own, ironically) cannot compete unless it changes what it stands for, dismantles the group identities in its way or changes the terms of the contest. As the last option is near impossible to do, at least with any kind of immediate success, the Democratic Alliance is wrangling over the former two and has made Africanness and ubuntu, the poor, innocent slipper into which liberally sized ostensibly liberal feet are mad they can’t fit or use, proxies in their bid for political preeminence.
If you are that interested, here are some links to the great South African (supposedly) liberal debate:
- An erosion of the DA’s liberal values?, by Gareth van Onselen
- For liberalism to succeed, we must dispense with dogma, by Gavin Davis
- Being African extends beyond race, podcast of Radio 702’s Eusebius McKaiser in conversation with Mmusi Maimane
- Liberalism, the Democratic Alliance and identity, by Jacques Rousseau
- The liberal project and DA discontent, by Marius Redelinghuys
- Why ubuntu is a liberal value, by Phumzile van Damme