Now is the time to remember what Mandela meant by ‘ubuntu’

Not mourning, celebrating. GovernmentZA

Many fine words of tribute were uttered as some of the world’s most powerful people gather to pay tribute to former President Nelson Mandela. In spite of the rain, thousands gathered to hear the tributes by the eminences in the FNB stadium in Soweto, which is where Madiba addressed the world on the day of his release in 1990.

But it was a word uttered by Barack Obama in the middle of his tribute that really caught the attention, as he referred to Mandela’s inspirational commitment to forgiveness and humanism: “ubuntu”.

Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

Perhaps, moved by this same spirit, Obama shook the hand of Cuban president Raul Castro’s hand before stepping up to the podium in recognition, perhaps, of the stand that Fidel Castro had taken against apartheid. It may be too much to hope for ubuntu to break out suddenly between the US and Cuba, two nations that have boycotted and shunned each other for more than 50 years. But the gesture was there - and it was widely picked up and commented on.

Ubuntu thin on the ground

In spite of the embrace of Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Mandela’s widow Graça Machel, other evidence of ubuntu was thin on the ground. The crowds booed South African President Jacob Zuma a number of times. Although Mandela was always going to be hard act to follow, Mbeki managed to gain the respect of many South Africans, whereas Zuma has not.

Nor was there much evidence of ubuntu in the ranks of international leaders and their representatives in attendance. Indeed, not all the world leaders were there or wanted to be. Russian, Chinese, Israeli and Iranian presidents all sent lower-ranking representatives.

Although President Vladimir Putin left a message of condolence at the South African embassy in Moscow on Monday, Russia was represented by upper house Federation Council speaker, Valentina Matviyenko, and there has been little media coverage of Mandela’s death in Russia. Business as usual is the order of the day. Yet the Soviet Union was a supporter of the South African Communist party, whose members were often also ANC members.

It is this historic link that has led many right-wing Republicans in the US to utter unseemly denunciations of the dead man as a communist – something Mandela himself always denied but which is suggested in documents that have come to light over the past couple of years. The South African anti-apartheid movement was glad of Soviet support at a time when the West propped up the apartheid regime, when Margaret Thatcher denounced him as a terrorist, and the US saw the National Party regime as an important ally in the Cold War.

Partners in remembrance. GovernmentZA

Had the new South Africa eschewed the free market economy model it embraced under Mandela’s early presidency and thus perhaps been able to honour more of its promises to address the dreadful poverty and deprivation of its black population, perhaps the great leaders of the free (if ever more unequal) world would be less enthusiastic in their praise of his leadership. But Mandela’s old ally the former Soviet Union is no longer and the memorial service is no place to explore Russia’s no doubt complicated attitudes to South Africa and Mandela.

Less complicated is Israel’s position. Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and a delegation of six Knesset members represented Israel. Shimon Peres, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, did not attend for medical reasons. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu gave logistical and cost reasons for his failure to attend. Perhaps Mandela’s support for the Palestine and his view that freedom for the Palestinians was an unrealised cause and is more relevant than Netanyahu’s newfound personal economy drive.

It was rumoured that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif might attend but they changed their mind to avoid a face-to-face meeting with Obama, instead sending vice president Mohammad Shariatmadari.

In China there was little discussion of who would attend – and vice president Li Yuanchao was present as a special representative of president Xi Jinping. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who faces two international arrest warrants, did not attend, following his indictment by the International Criminal Court. Sudan was represented by newly appointed first vice president Bakri Hassan Saleh. The Egyptians did not send their interim president or foreign minister but sent an official delegation headed by Mohammed Faiq, head of the National Council of Human Rights, who had met Mandela when he was state commissioner for African affairs during Nasser’s time. This can be seen in the light of South Africa’s stance on the ousting of former president Mohammed Morsi, which they described as a coup d'etat and the African Union (AU) subsequently suspended Egypt’s membership.

Ubuntu is for winners

Mandela’s advocacy of ubuntu began after the fall of apartheid, when it was clear that he, not the National Party, would have the upper hand. The victor can afford the generosity of magnanimity, can afford to reach out to vanquished enemies and offer compromises.

For Obama, who faces a domestic battle over health care, unemployment relief in a society like many others where the rift between the right and the middle ground mirrors the growing divide between rich and poor, is it foolish to talk of ubuntu? Surely justice, fairness, an end to the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable has to end first. Mandela was clear on that. The battle for justice was, for him, a cause that he was prepared to die for.

Ubuntu is not about giving ground to hard-liners who will resist justice, it is is about winning the battle for justice – and when those who would expropriate and exploit are divested of their powers to expropriate and exploit, then and only then can the hand of friendship be extended to them. Until then, the fight goes on.