Once again, South Africa has erupted in politically motivated violence that mobilises ethnic identities. In response to this horribly familiar experience, it is important to think about the paradox that this is happening in a land that has has much to teach the world about peace and reconciliation. Drawing from African moral traditions, South Africa can show how harmonious lives can be enabled following the path of ubuntu. 

In his speech to the nation on 12 July President Cyril Ramaphosa noted that the violence gripping the country recalls episodes in the past when ethnic divisions were fomented for political gains. Indeed, there are many historical grounds for saying colonialism and apartheid used divide-and-rule practices that promote ethnic violence. 

Ramaphosa also told the nation that this violence does not represent who South Africans are, as he extolled the nation to work towards a better South Africa for all. But those who are fanning the fires of violence are also claiming to be advancing the cause of justice. They claim, in some instances, that it offends African traditions to place an old man such as former president Jacob Zuma in jail. 

Further, they claim that to visit punishment on Zuma is to insult the people of South Africa, who place their hopes in him. To defend a man accused of looting, masses are led to plunder the land. Two visions of South Africa, of justice, and of morality collide. Both visions surely appeal somehow to notions of ubuntu.

But it is not at all clear that we still know how to draw on ubuntu when thinking about violence and peace in the quest for better ways of living.

In my recently published book, Ubuntu for Warriors, I note that these days ubuntu is widely spoken about as a moral philosophy that values harmony, restorative justice and other peaceable practices. At the same time it has become heretical to think of ubuntu for warriors — though morality is for warriors too. 

This unnecessarily and unfortunately weakens understanding of ubuntu because Africans have histories in which warriors such as King Shaka, President Nelson Mandela and others have been part of the establishment and maintenance of good societies. In consequence, talk of violence is too often left to members of our communities whose uses of violence are damnable.

Ubuntu is, to apply the succinct expression of authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, a metaphor we live by. As Africans developed ubuntu, they did so also to address the violence and wars that mark human lives in various ways. 

But, as noted by the late great historian Ali Mazrui, Africans have lost their memories of their warrior traditions. In losing these memories, we have lost traditional means to evaluate when and how to fight. In the upshot, dominant contemporary African thinking about how people should live does not draw upon traditions and histories by which Africans sought to use violence to build, protect or advance justice.

Severing the links that Africans have with warrior role-models is part of how colonialism acts to make Africans fit to be menial and “herded” by mutilating, decapitating and dismembering traditions. In the book Something Torn and New, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes colonisation as a process that mutilates, dismembered, decapitates and then re-members the minds of the colonised in ways that give priority to its own cultural, intellectual, economic and political experiences and memories. 

At this moment, as South Africans are drawn to the streets to act out violence in the name of a former leader who is accused of corruption, one also sees the misuse of calls to violence by black political elites. Unfortunately, it is not a rare occurrence in Africa for leaders to use their followers to threaten or act out violence to protect autocratic, and kleptocratic misrule.

Colonial forces, including those of apartheid, were well-practiced in making use of moral systems, including those with indigenous genealogies, to lull African masses into psychological stupors. Under colonial rule, as said by the late founding president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah: “Africans are constantly being reminded that they are a peace-loving, tolerant and communalist-minded people. The African is projected as an individual who has always been loath to shed blood. The corollary of this argument is that it would be immoral and against our nature to engage in revolutionary warfare.” 

Colonialists and their apartheid allies hope that Africans will soon forget that, as Nkrumah notes, “Military strategy presupposes political aims. All military problems are political, and all political problems are economic.” 

The key point is that the dominant contemporary traditions of ubuntu have cut Africans off from memories and systems of thought about when and how to fight. As a result, we have limited cultural resources to draw upon when people such as Edward Zuma proclaim that blood will be shed because his father, former president Zuma, is subjected to the might of the law.

We must recover our moral authority, with our histories of ubuntu warriors! If we fail to do so, our ubuntu will continue to be misused to promote the unjust and often violent interests of political elites. 

This is important to think about, also, as the army rolls out to save the day.