Ubuntu- Legacy of Desmond Tutu

By: Dr. Paul Hwang – Director of All Forum

The day after Christmas, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church, who devoted his life to ending apartheid in South Africa breathed his last. Archbishop Tutu, along with Nelson Mandela, is widely known to have led the South African white regime’s struggle to abolish the apartheid system implemented against many black people from 1948 to 1991. For this achievement, he became more famous when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. Although the direct cause of his death was not revealed, the recurrence of cancer diagnosed in the late 1990s and the recent frequent access to the hospital, and the old age of 90 years old are considered the reasons.

How can I remember him and say something about him to you? Let’s follow a brief timelines in relation to the topic of this writing. The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that he is a human rights activist who has fought against “racism” throughout his life. Born in the Johannesburg slums, he worked as a school teacher and started a family, and was only ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960 when he turned 29. From 1978 to 1985, he served as secretary-general of the South African Church Council and entered the campaign against black discrimination in earnest. It became the centerpiece of promoting the brutality of the police against black people, preaching peace, and leading the democratization of South Africa and the struggle for black freedom. In 1986, he became the first African-American to become an archbishop in Cape Town.

In April 1994, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, came to power and went on to politics. From the large salaries received by Mandela’s government ministers to the corruption of former President Jacob Zuma’s government in 2018, he continued to play the role of a “moral conscience” that caused direct criticism.

Archbishop Tutu, who served as chairman of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Committee,” was also actively evaluated for pioneering the path of racial reconciliation with the slogan “No future without forgiveness.” Later, he also published a book titled this slogan. In this writing commemorating him, I reflect on what the basic idea was behind in this cry of “No future without forgiveness.” This is what I would like to think about and share with readers of this newsletter published by ALL Forum. Of course, it must have been the Christian faith that inspired him and gave him the power to overcome all kinds of adversity throughout his life as an Anglican priest and human rights activist, but I would like to remember the spirit of Ubuntu, a traditional South African idea he advocated with Mandela.

According to Tutu, Ubuntu has so many meanings that it is difficult to define in aword as the ideological root of his peace movement. Given a person who is “generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate” you could say that the one is true and sincere to Ubuntu. Or you could say “I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” Among various definitions and interpretations of it, however, I prefer Tutu’s own paraphrase: “I am because we (you) are!” The strong and insightful words could definitely encourage people to care for others regardless race, sex, age and nationality. It must apply not only to peoples in Africa but those in Asia also. I have often used the sentence in my lectures for online courses on Catholic social teachings by ALL Forum for Asian young Catholics. The talks in last year was the case.

In Fratelli Tutti , Pope Francis mentions “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people.” (no.182) Pope Francis’ focus on brotherhood and social fraternity emphasizes the urgency of Ubuntu or ‘interconnectedness’ in reality. Yes, it is necessarily related to another his thoughts in point: “Everything is interconnected” which appears three time in Laudato Si as they are.

This idea comes to be culminated in the idea of “We (humans) are (a part of) nature” (LS, no.139). If we take it seriously we could get out of such a die-hard dualistic world views which divides into the two: humans or nature, heaven or hell (earth), men or women, good or bad, and clergy or laity…etc. Nearly all of theologians and church people too have been so heavily indoctrinated by the “subject-object” dualistic thinking that many of them read the No.139 and don’t even notice how revolutionary it is. If we do, it will lead us to setting up a whole different relationship with other humans, nature, and all things in universe. Therefore, it is important for us to “change” such world views and put it into practice in many movements led by Fath-based organizations (FBOs) especially ecological movement. Remembering Tutu and his Ubuntu, that should be one thing at least we should be willing to learn from for the better world.

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