Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Reflections of President Mbeki's Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture

Social cohesion and human solidarity cannot be detached from material conditions and relations.

President Thabo Mbeki’s Nelson Mandela lecture on Saturday, July 29, 2006 at Wits University called upon South Africans to debate materialism and idealism, whilst emphasising the central notion of social cohesion and human solidarity. Nothing more could be encouraging and inspiring than the President of the country calling on all of us to embrace the noble values and practices of Ubuntu. The President advised all of us never to allow the market to be the principal determinant of the nature of our society. The President indicated that he believes that “to achieve the social cohesion and human solidarity we seek; we must vigorously confront the legacy of poverty, racism and sexism”.

All South Africans ought to indeed concur that the goals and values preached by the president are noble and should be cherished by the broader South African society. Indeed, Ubuntu is a phenomenon worth recapturing from the traditional African society in different periods of history, which organisationally manifested communalism and elements of egalitarianism.

Nevertheless, my practical observation, without being cynical, is that disconnecting social cohesion and human solidarity from material existence of individuals and the political economy, does not present a viable and strong case for these noble phenomena. Certainly, President Mbeki’s case for social cohesion and Ubuntu represented an epitome of superior logic, but logic cannot solely determine what values society espouses. Somewhat, the assertion that material conditions are determinant of social consciousness makes more practical sense to me than a rather nostalgic belief that the superiority of logic and reasoning could determine how society interrelate.

The reality is that South Africa is currently a capitalist society, which practices and promulgates unapologetically the extraction of surplus value out of what certain sections of society sell as labour. The expansion and extension of this process of capital accumulation and labour exploitation is certainly called economic growth in the globalisation dictum. This method of production, as Karl Marx presaged, is not independent of the other aspects of and relations in society.

Kwame Nkrumah argued that the defeat of colonialism (Let me add apartheid) did not result in the automatic disappearance of the imported social organisation and political economy. These patterns have actually taken root and are in varying degree, sociological features of contemporary South African society.

Capitalism, including our own, is inherently about greed, individualism, social inequality and consumerism. To expect Ubuntu, social cohesion and human solidarity in capitalism is tantamount to searching for the proverbial pin in a haystack. Certainly, the values of a capitalist market of individual profit maximisation, as the President acknowledged, displace the values of human solidarity. Many social scientists in the Left political spectrum argue that actually capitalism creates solidarity and cohesion of the exploited class to fight out the capitalist system, not human solidarity in general.

In essence, the lack of social cohesion and solidarity are basically symptoms of capitalism and markets, and perhaps focus should be shifted towards the cause. And within the current globalisation (imperialism) phenomenon, market fundamentalism is slowly becoming an imperial reality with the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade and Services, which proposes the privatisation and marketisation of virtually everything in society.

Perhaps this characteristic of capitalism is not entirely true, and we should, as the President suggested, debate whether the notion of “I think, therefore I am” cannot be reality. If this notion is not reality, we should seriously consider what Nkrumah once claimed, “true economic and social development cannot be promoted without the real socialisation of productive and distributive processes”.

Socialisation of production is not foreign and was actually envisioned by the Freedom Charter is proclaiming that all mineral wealth, monopoly capital and banks, in South Africa, shall be nationalised, whilst land retained to all who live in it. As part of recapturing social cohesion, human solidarity and ubuntu, we perhaps need to make such considerations as socialisation of productive and distributive processes.

Overall, we should all strive to build a good, moral, humane, and caring South Africa, and debate these issues because indeed, as Marx said, mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, and therefore work before it can pursue politics, science, art and religion. Yet the Biblical Jesus Christ said in his early teachings that “do not worry about your life, what you eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on… is not life more than food and body more than clothing?” Let’s debate.


Boy Uninterrupted said...

Floyd man!
I like what you write! Capitalism is one of those economic systems (and I guess social and political too) that makes it near impossible for an individual or set of individuals or countries to function outside its confines. It'll eat them alive.

Socialist ideals which echo ubuntu were evil-eyed out of our so called modern society in much the same way traditional African beliefs were by & through colonialisation. Thabs has always been a great man in my eyes and it's reflections such as these that remind me how much so.

Our problem here is deep and I fear that change cannot be gradual, we need a revolution!

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