Excerpt taken from Ubuntu, Migration and Ministry. Being Human in a Johannesburg Church (2014), p.387-388, written by Elina Hankela.
“Can you imagine what would happen in this world if we accepted that fact about ourselves – that whether we like it or not we are members of one family?”[Desmond Tutu]. Can you imagine what would happen in inner-city Johannesburg or in the wealthy suburb and business centre of Sandton less that thirty kilometres away or in Helsinki, London, Addis Ababa, or anywhere in the world if we imagined ourselves as members of one human family? If we embodied ubuntu, provided that you have a positive view of ‘family’ that involves notions such as care, hospitality and love, this imaginary could be the reality in which we live. However, a continuous flood of news from all over the world suggests instead that we continue to live in a world of conflicts… People’s personal experiences in relation to the other, be it the other in terms of religion, race, nationality, gender, sexuality or class, unfortunately often reinforce this understanding. We as humankind do not seem to imagine ourselves as belonging together; or if we do, we have a long way to go in tangibly embodying the vision.
South Africa is no exception. The concurrent images of the politicians and marketers’ ‘ubuntu nation’, on the one hand, and of attacks against foreign township or inner-city inhabitants, on the other, raise uneasy questions. So do the figures that indicate a high level of socio-economic inequality and a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. If one is not ready to disclaim the importance of ubuntu as a moral maxim in this context – and the possibility of belonging together as a human family – on the basis of the apparent contradictions, these images prompt one to listen to grassroots communities and scrutinize the socio-moral meanings attached at being human(e) in particular 21st-century contexts. That has been my aim in examining human relationships and the notion of ubuntu ‘from below’, from a grassroots perspective through listening to informants’ views in the context of the Refugee Ministry in inner-city Johannesburg. As a researcher, I set out to ask how people at the CMM understood and defined a good human relationship; what limited and what enabled the actualization of ubuntu in the relationship between the members and the dwellers; and what these dynamics expose about being human(e) and about ubuntu.
Ubuntu as a moral notion clearly had a significant role at the CMM, and I believe that the grassroots ubuntu of the inner city I engaged with through this study has much to contribute to the conversations of those who approach ubuntu from the perspective of morality, searching for answers to questions of what ought to be. This ubuntu was not exactly the ubuntu of the politicians or marketers even though their rhetoric was part of the social context of the CMM, nor was it the ubuntu of the traditional village even though the village too played a role in the moral maps of being human(e) in the city. Rather, the way in which Hope, a member of CMM, described her church also says something about the ubuntu that surfaced in this context: “The one thing about Central is that it’s real. In as much as it is dirty, it’s a reality check.” Likewise I could describe the at times contested views of ubuntu that emerged in this study as ‘reality ubuntu‘. The particular reality in question then is an encounter between a local church and refugees and homeless people in a six-floor church building at the heart of central Johannesburg.
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