Ubuntu is a term referred to in South Africa, and it describes a spirit of compassion and humanity. It certainly is not unique to South Africa, but visitors to South Africa will often remark about how warm and friendly the people are. And for those locals who have traveled away from South Africa, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that you can ‘feel it’ when you arrive back on home ground.
I want to tell you about two instances of Ubuntu that I experienced during this last weekend. The reason that they were so poignant, is because our country has been plagued by issues of xenophobia and crimes against women and children. Both terrible issues, and both detracting from the incredible spirit of Ubuntu.
My daughter and I drove up to the car wash at the local mall where we do our shopping. As a regular customer, I am entirely comfortable to leave my car at the car wash while we do the shopping, and then we collect it afterwards. The folk that run the car wash have worked there for years, and they run a good shop. On this occassion, the man who greeted us has served me for many years. He is a tall, young man, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and his native language is French. How do I know this? I once wore a t-shirts with a french greeting on it, and so we greeted in french. He was excited as he thought he’d found somebody who he could have a conversation with, in French. Sadly, I disappointed. I told him that I’d been to France, and visited Paris. He told me that he is from the DRC. Since that conversation several years ago, his English has improved dramatically and he seems fluent in some of our local languages i.e. Zulu. On this afternoon, he observed that my daughter did not look very happy. And so he offered her some advice. In his lovely Congolese French accent he told her that nothing is more beautiful than a smile. And that even when things are not going well, and are uncertain, he still wears a smile and things work out. Even when he does not know if he’s going to have enough money to pay his rent, he still smiles. He told her to smile. This struck me, as not only does this man come from a country that has a horrible reputation of genocide, and he is in a country where xenophobic attacks have been taking place; but still he has a smile on his face and he’s offering words of encouragement to others. That 1 minute chat changed her mood, and I was inspired. That is Ubuntu.
In South Africa we have petrol attendants who assist clients by filling their cars with fuel, checking the water and oil, tyre pressure, and even washing the windscreen. It’s not a glamorous job at all. No doubt the hours are difficult and many clients are perhaps not very generous in offering tips. However, today I experienced Ubuntu whilst parked in the bay and having all of these services offered. I was gazing off ahead of me, not really paying attention to what I was looking at; when suddenly I realised that one of the petrol attendants was standing dead still a few meters ahead, in my direct line of sight. He was an elderly man and he had a huge smile on his face. When he realised that I now saw him and was no longer daydreaming, he saluted me and I laughed. And then he shouted out in a friendly voice ‘Good morning! How are you?’ That single act changed my mood, and changed my focus. That is Ubuntu.
Truth be told, we encounter moments like this every single day. And we probably miss many of them because we’re too caught up in our own heads, in our own problems. And if we’re not careful, we’ll be too caught up in all the negative media about our country that we’ll miss the awesome parts of it, which are right in front of us. There certainly are challenges in our country which need urgent attention; but that’s not the full story.
Early morning, Ushaka Beach, Durban, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. September 2019. Picture taken by Alison.