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Mandela's Legacy: Teaching Ubuntu

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I am a former teacher turned full-time writer and one day hope to return to the classroom. If I could inspire high school students to discover and apply one huge and empowering achievement of our time, I would point them to South Africa.

To Nelson Mandela, revered as Madiba by his countrymen, and to something much bigger than him.

I would tell them about the resurgence of Ubuntu to help that country heal after the dismantling of apartheid.

Ubuntu is an age-old cultural world view shared by many African societies which highlights the essential unity of humanity. This view holds that all members of a community are linked together, be they rich or poor, victims or perpetrators, and it holds profound implications for peacemaking and conflict resolution. Ubuntu emphasizes empathy, cooperation, and sharing over retribution and competition, and inclusivity over exclusivity.

Without this grounding, South Africans could not have attempted to repair themselves and renew their country in the same way. Following the ravages and atrocities of two world wars, the genocides in Europe, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, the ethnic purges, mass relocations and brutal dictatorships on almost every continent, in a nation most ripe for violent retaliation among blacks and whites, there was largely reconciliation -- and even forgiveness.

Apparently Ubuntu is difficult to convey fully in a Western language. Yet Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Cape Town and the country's spiritual leader at the time, explained that Ubuntu "is to say, 'My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life.

"We say, 'a person is a person through other people. I am human because I belong, I participate, and I share.'"

In southern Africa, Ubuntu's clearest articulation is among the Nguni group of languages. Tutu explained, "When you give high praises to someone we say, 'Yu, u Nobuntu'; he or she has Ubuntu. This means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate."


With Tutu and Nelson Mandela embracing and shepherding this cultural essence, Ubuntu was at the heart of what drove black South Africans to start down the path of magnanimity and forgiveness rather than revenge. Amnesty was offered to those willing to admit and take responsibility for their crimes. Attempts to reconcile were messy and flawed.

Still, despite the dehumanization of blacks, Indians and other ethnic groups by white Afrikaners that began in 1948, the majority that restored democracy in 1994 rejected retaliation against their former masters. It would be somewhat easier for leaders like Mandela, despite being imprisoned for 27 years, to offer forgiveness since their lives were vindicated than for others such as a mother whose son was tortured and burned by whites, and who was left with nothing. Yet most South Africans sought a restorative justice rather than judicial punishment or large monetary damages like an American-style class action suit. The new leaders eschewed criminal and civil litigation against most perpetrators, averting further splitting the country apart, although the government later made reparations to many victims.

Instead, under the Anglican archbishop's lead, over several years South Africans went through a public process offering amnesty for perpetrators from both sides who confessed and took responsibility for their crimes. It was called the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The perpetrators included secret security forces and police, commanders and thugs who applied electric shocks and burned or dumped bodies into crocodile-infested rivers, as well as fighters among the black opposition who exploded bombs outside white bars, or gangs in the Soweto township who attacked suspected collaborators. Some 7,000 people applied for amnesty. Sensitivity to some 20,000 victims and their families who also came before the commission was tantamount. Tutu led the commission's hearings often by lighting a candle in memory of those who died in past conflicts, he gave prayers, and a roll call of honor was read.

The process involved fact-finding and for some, acknowledging guilt became a step toward recasting their own broken humanity. Victims gave testimony of their ordeals and could challenge the veracity and contrition of those responsible; their suffering was acknowledged and loved ones held up. The TRC was considered successful by some measures such as providing a forum for victims and unearthing the truth of racial killings and the beneficiaries of apartheid; and the commission was gauged as less successful at healing victims' trauma and answering the toughest moral questions. Ultimately many felt that despite the grueling process, South Africa moved itself in the right direction.

Antjie Krog, a South African journalist who reported extensively on the TRC, noted the many contradictions and ongoing pain on both sides. But she described reconciliation as essentially a daily survival skill keyed by negotiation. "The goal is not to avoid pain or reality, but to deal with the never-ending quest of self-definition and negotiation required to transform differences into assets," she wrote in 1999 in Country Of My Skull, "Reconciliation is not only a process. It is a cycle that will be repeated many times."

Tutu's theology was a bedrock throughout this cycle. In No Future Without Forgiveness, he laid out the moral case for attempting to balance exposing and punishing the atrocities with moving forward. The commission was guided by the Christian belief that even the most notorious evildoer has the capacity to repent and be forgiven.

"We can never give up on anyone because our God was one who had a particularly soft spot for sinners," he wrote. He insisted that spiritual principles guide the TRC. "This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word," Tutu wrote.

At the root, Desmond Tutu framed his beliefs with this: "What we are, what we have, even our salvation, all is gift, all is grace, not to be achieved but to be received as a gift freely given."

My Ubuntu unit plan

So how could I engage students to unearth this Ubuntu experience? And then, most importantly, apply it to their own lives? These would be some highlights of my unit plan.

Key objectives are for students to analyze the experience and role of Ubuntu in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the unification efforts; draw conclusions about the extent reconciliation has been successful; and make recommendations for conflict-resolving approaches to a recent or ongoing crisis.

Among my guiding questions:

What does it take to forgive someone who has oppressed you, your community, or maybe killed a relative or friend?

What do you expect from the perpetrator or oppressor for this to even possibly happen?

What happens internally to those who stay angry and bitter, or take revenge with violence or other means?

What does reconciliation mean in your life? Have you been separated from or angry at someone, a family member or enemy, and tried to patch things up?

In societies where the the ideal is for people to be unified, taking care of each other and integrated with each other's humanity, where does this openness come from?

What if reconciliation fails? What comes next?

Finally, for now, my students would explore Mandela's life and legacy. We should study, hear and read and watch him. The resistance movement, turning to armed struggle, the amateur boxer, lawyer, father, philanderer, prisoner, tactician, immovable negotiator, icon, the once-disgraced husband, president.

On Robben Island off Cape Town, where Mandela was sentenced to life as a political prisoner when he was 46, he soon was assigned to work in a limestone quarry breaking rocks. He spent 13 years hacking away there, his eyesight damaged by the sun's blinding glare off the white walls. They refused his request for dark glasses, and his wrinkled face took on the look of someone long out in all weather, a lighthouse tender from another age. Within a few days, the guards made prisoners march to the quarry rather than go by truck, and it was a tonic to him.

During the 20-minute trek, he wrote in his memoir, "we got a better sense of the island, and could see the dense brush and tall trees that covered our home, and smell the eucalyptus blossoms, spot the occasional springbok or kudu grazing in the distance. Although some of the men regarded the march as drudgery, I never did."

He was released from prison nearly three decades later -- February 11, 1990 -- and before Mandela greeted jubilant crowds he did something else. Before raising his right clenched fist in what had become a power salute for the African National Congress, earlier that afternoon he thanked three warrant officers, among his white captors -- one who had provided him meals for several years and others who had given companionship. Mandela wrote, "Men like Swart, Gregory and Warrant Officer Brand reinforced my belief in the essential humanity even of those who had kept me behind bars for the previous twenty seven and a half years."

This would be among my Ubuntu lesson plans.

Ken Brack is a nonfiction author who formerly taught English at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, Ma. His debut book, Closer By The Mile, the uplifting story of the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon for cancer research, was published last summer.