18 FEBRUARY 2013
PROF. S. T. KGATLA
Madam Vice Chancellor – Prof. de la Rey, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Dean of the Faculty of Theology – Prof. Buitendag. Deputy Dean of Theology – Prof. Dirk Human, Heads of Department, colleagues and students – ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
It is my privilege and an honour to present a Scriptural reflection on this occasion, when we welcome our new students to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria, and start a new academic year.
I decided to reflect on the important and, indeed, all-encompassing African concept of Ubuntu, as it is expressed in Scripture. In recent years, the concept of Ubuntu has become a buzzword, especially in South Africa, and today, people use the term to mean anything and everything people can think of when they want to make a statement about how everything used to be in the past, in contrast to how things are now. In some circles, there is a certain nostalgia for the past, because of what is perceived to be the deteriorating moral condition of the country.
However, Ubuntu is not a concept to be demoted to a term used to bemoan the current situation. The concept of Ubuntu belongs to and derives from the essence of God. Ubuntu in fact refers to a humanness that resides in the very nature of God. God is a person. He has personal, rational, creative, morally admirable relationship with His creatures. His people bear His image. His goodness impels us (His creatures) into a new way of being human and, indeed, to an entirely new creation.
Because human beings have damaged their Ubuntu through sin, they fail to fully live and express their basic nature as compassionate, loving beings born to affiliate with others in an empowering way. The Bible defines this humanness when it tells us how, in many instances, God encountered His people when they were in utter need of His love. Jesus epitomises Ubuntu (humanness). His affirmation of humanness as a blessing clearly demonstrates that Ubuntu is a demonstration of love that shows that human beings are born utterly dependent upon others.
The first scholar to use the word Ubuntu in Africa was Prof. John Mbiti, in his book Concept of God in Africa, published in 1969. However, even Mbiti did not trace back the construct to its biblical basis. Those who took up the term and all those who climbed on the bandwagon later did not bother to show the theological significance of the term. Today, in our country, many use the term indiscriminately.
One white South African who did use the concept more circumspectly recently is Justice J. Lamont, in the case between Afri-Forum and Julius Malema in the Equality Court, Case 20 968/2010. Justice Lamont touched on some important elements of Ubuntu. In his judgement, he contrasted Ubuntu with vengeance, and argued that Ubuntu requires us to place a high premium on human dignity, compassion, humanness, respect, a good attitude and shared values. He argued further that Ubuntu is in line with restorative harmony, justice and reconciliation, and that it promotes mutual understanding rather than punishment. It promotes civility, civilized dialogue and mutual tolerance. Ubuntu embraces all that is good and godly. I believe that Justice Lamont is one of the few South Africans who have come close to showing an understanding of the Biblical implications of the term.
Ubuntu in fact constitutes the very essence of God. It cannot be construed merely as an African philosophy and then left there, unless people want to claim that African culture is the only culture in which God is fully expressed. The Bible portrays the Christian God as loving and caring, and as taking the side of those who have been wronged. He takes up residence in the life of a believer to effect Ubuntu in that believer’s life, as He is and has Ubuntu Himself. In fact God is the first human being with only good qualities. The Christian God has created human beings in His image so that they too can have the attributes of love, being caring, compassionate, promoting good relations, integrity, honesty, and trust – these are all life-giving traits.
He manifests Himself to humans in human form (Ubuntu). The Bible describes God’s acts of Ubuntu. When the first couple sinned, He was moved with compassion and love. He emptied Himself to devise an Ubuntu plan to restore them to their original dignity and glory. He relates to His people in such a way that He will be with them until the end of time. In Sotho we say: O na le botho in Tswana ona le molemo [God has a human heart].
Let us be more specific and try to actuate the concept of Ubuntu in our present context. I would like to turn to Proverbs 9:1-18. In this text, Wisdom (Ubuntu) is contrasted with folly. The writer of this Proverb personifies Wisdom and Folly to get across his message: in Proverbs 9:1-18, wisdom (embedded and embodied in Ubuntu) versus folly (the absence of Ubuntu) are explained by comparing two ladies hosting dinner parties at the same time, but in different venues. People passing in the street are invited to the home of Lady Wisdom (who espouses Ubuntu) and Dame Folly (who serves foolishness).
Lady Wisdom (vv 1-6) serves the dinner at her home, a place worthy of its mistress. The elegant table is set in a large, tastefully designed place with secure pillars. The menu includes choice meat, gourmet breads, vintage wines, and assorted drinks. Efficient and courteous staff is waiting to serve the guests. The elegant party is not reserved for exclusive guests, but is open to the public. Even those with only the minimum of wisdom should heed this generous invitation. The “simple” are invited – that means those who lack understanding, even people who have long pursued “foolishness” are welcome.
Lady Wisdom is a generous person, she wants everyone at her party, so that everyone may taste something of Ubuntu. Her gates are wide open. Even more – her “maidens” (female servants) have been sent into town to invite everyone they meet. If they come across the mayor, he/she is invited; if they stumble over a drunkard lying in the gutter – he/she is no less welcome. The invitation is sincerely offered; Lady Wisdom is indiscriminate in her love. She wants everybody to enhance his/her quality of Ubuntu. Lady Wisdom’s hospitality extends to everyone, including the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind and foreigners. Her character constitutes Ubuntu. In turn, those who dine with her and drink at her party are expected to make a difference in their communities afterwards. The wise dine at her house and become servants in and to their own communities.
Further down the same street, there is another party. It is described in vv. 13-18. This other party is hosted by Dame Folly, whose ignorance is only surpassed by her conceit. She knows nothing, but remains “clamorous” – always eager to voice her opinions. She too takes a special interest in “simple” people and those who lack understanding. But her motive is different. Wisdom takes pity on fools, hoping to develop them towards full humanness (Ubuntu). Folly is predatory. She turns to “the simple”, those who lack understanding, not because she loves them and wants to help them, but because she wants to deny them any opportunity to become truly human. She too makes her offer attractive.
Here the potential guests need the gift of discernment. All people have been given the ability to discern evil from good. Lady Wisdom wants to enhance this inborn trait, while Dame Folly wants to distort it.
The guests at Dame Folly’s dinner have a number of things in common. They have a distorted view of good and evil; their vision has been blurred. They have allowed themselves to be dictated to and compromised by a lack of credibility. In Romans 1:19, Paul illuminates this point when he states that “what can be known about God is plain to them, for God Himself made it plain”. God did not leave Himself without witness in their conscience. What is good or wrong can be discerned through our inborn knowledge. This is the reason why criminals have no excuse for the crimes they commit. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong was engraved in our conscience when the image of God was implanted in us at our creation.
Because the Christian God is a person, and has all human characteristics and can relate to people in the most profound way, He is the author of Ubuntu. We as human beings are made in and have an inborn image of God – we can choose between going to Lady Wisdom’s feast or Dame Folly’s dinner. Those who eat from Dame Folly’s table will always make excuses for not choosing wisely, claiming to be surprised at the outcomes.
A story that illustrates choices is the parable of ten virgins in Luke 15 – five were wise and five were foolish. We also hear about people in Matthew 25:31-46 who are separated from others, condemned for eternity because they did not show Ubuntu to their fellow human beings. We stand surprised that they could not do a simple thing – show justice and live with mercy before God. Ubuntu is a godly way of life that is not indifferent to the needs of others. This is why Lady Wisdom invites all people to dine at her place.
In conclusion – the Lady University of Pretoria has successfully invited you to her dinner. She has prepared an excellent meal that will nourish you, enabling you to acquire all the Ubuntu traits available along Lynnwood Road. But Dame Folly has also prepared a number of enticing fast-food stalls along the same street for those who lack understanding. The choice as to where we will dine is ours, but let me give you some advice – Lady Wisdom’s feast is always the best!
In 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8, the Apostle Paul tells us precisely what Ubuntu is. Let me borrow his definition.: Ubuntu is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; Ubuntu is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; Ubuntu does not keep a record of wrongs; Ubuntu is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Ubuntu never gives up and is eternal.
May God bless you in your quest for Ubuntu.