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AFRICAN INTELLECTUALS AND MORAL REGENERATION

BY

HERBERT W. VILAKAZI

 

(2006)

What can be done to counter the high levels of social pathology and acts of moral degeneration that we all observe and experience in our society? Government has been concerned enough about this widespread moral degeneration that Cabinet resolved to establish a unit in the Presidency charged with the task of “Moral Regeneration.” President Mbeki has also called for our thinkers to suggest how our common heritage of Ubuntu can be made a foundation for reconciliation and reconstruction of our society.

 

The rise of capitalist civilization in 16th century Europe, and its domination of the entire world, continuing in our time as globalization, has been unique in world history in its abandonment of the enforcement throughout society of a guide for moral and ethical behaviour for all society members.

 

Every society before capitalism had a model of what type of human being must be raised and produced in that society. To that end, every society had a Curriculum formulated by society’s thinkers, scholars and intellectuals, consisting of  principles of morality and ethics which must be taught and made the core of the personality and character of every individual in that society. Before teaching any occupational skill, the society wanted first to produce a certain moral and ethical person. Just as it is taken for granted that every school must have a curriculum and syllabus, so it was taken for granted that society would also have its curriculum and syllabus -since society is, first and foremost, the largest school. Every institution in society was bound to use this Curriculum as the basis of its activities.

 

Every community that had a specific history, culture, and tradition, had its own Model of a human being it aimed to produce; and it had a particular Curriculum for producing a particular moral and ethical person. This does not mean that the world had thousands of differing models, with opposed principles. Peasants, who were the overwhelming majority of pre-capitalist, pre-industrial society, had, more or less, the same Model of a moral and ethical being. This was a model of humanism, truth, beauty, brotherhood and sisterhood across the entire world. When peasants were conquered and dominated by landlords and other oppressors, the Model remained underground, oppressed, and damaged in the historical memories of peasants. After losing control of their communities and land to oppressors, it became increasingly difficult and impossible for peasants to maintain, keep alive and effective the Curriculum for producing the moral and ethical being in harmony with the Model. Nevertheless, the Model of a moral and ethical being in the consciousness of peasants became the most powerful source of the finest principles of humanism found in Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, and the inspiration for the finest classics in world literature and art.  

 

The African peasantry and village also had a particular Model of a human being, and a Curriculum formulated by thinkers, scholars, and intellectuals for producing a particular moral and ethical person. This is UBUNTU, what in Ancient Egypt was called MAAT. The case of Ancient Egypt is unique because these principles of morality and ethics were in written form. This African Model, with its Curriculum, is actually older than Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. Indeed, some scholars, like Max Weber and James Breasted, have stated that the principles of Egyptian ethics, MAAT, exercised a strong influence on the contents of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. After studying the commandments in MAAT, Max Weber wrote in  Ancient Judaism : “In substance these commandments anticipate largely the charity of the Gospels”…”presumably the development of Old Israelite charity was influenced by Egypt, directly, or by way of Phoenicia.” 

 

In his book, The Dawn of Conscience, Breasted wrote: “It is now quite evident that the ripe social and moral development of mankind in the Nile Valley, which is three thousand years older than that of the Hebrews, contributed essentially to the formation of the Hebrew literature which we call the Old Testament…Our moral heritage therefore, derives from a wider human past enormously older than the Hebrews, and it has come to us rather through the Hebrews than from them”  The late remarkable medical doctor and scholar, M. V. Gumede, wrote a striking, yet unpublished paper, showing similarities between certain aspects of the cultures of Ancient Egypt and of Southern Africa, especially Zulu culture. (Gumede, M. V., “The Role of the African Writer in Changing African Society”, Address on the Occasion of the Annual General Meeting and Presentation of Awards of USIBA Writer’s Guild, 09 September 1989; Molefi Kete Asante and Abu S. Abarry have done us all a favour by collecting most of these precious works inside the covers of one book: African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources, edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Abu S. Abarry, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1996)

 

Therefore, Ubuntu is a Model and Curriculum which stretches from Southern Africa to Ancient Egypt and the entire Continent, and to Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam,  Buddhism, and to principles of Humanism in the entire world. Before the rise of capitalism in 16th century Europe, this Model and the Curriculum was maintained, enforced by entire society, and taught to every member of society.

 

In his book, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe in effect stated that the philosophy of  African civilization, Ubuntu, has “fallen apart”; that modern African society does not have a moral, ethical guide for behaviour for the African collective, which is collectively accepted by the overwhelming majority of society. The freedom which capitalist modernity has brought came with the ethic or philosophy of individualism, which gives the individual the right to do as he/she can and wishes to do in-between the lines and pages of the Constitution. Ubuntu, or Maat, what Karenga calls “the moral and spiritual way” of classical African civilization, has become a private matter for the private individual.

 

Such a situation is a largely a recipe for disaster for the individual member of society, in the form of spiritual and mental uncertainty and confusion, inner collapse, meaninglessness, and anxiety; it is also largely a recipe for disaster for society, in the form of all sorts of pathological behaviour and crimes, abuse of women and children, and in increasing forms of psychiatric disorders, rage and violence, and hatred between human being and human being, loss of respect for human life, and increasing ugliness of modern life –all counter-acting efforts we make to hold together in the family, in school, in the neighborhood, in marriage, in man-woman relations, etc.   

 

WHAT MUST BE DONE?

 

Achebe portrayed modern African society correctly: Things Fall Apart . The ethics or philosophy of classical African civilization, contained in all the Holy Books of all religions, has fallen apart. The `freedom’ bestowed upon the world by capitalist civilization has worked powerfully to pull apart and destroy the ethics or philosophy contained in the Holy Books of all religions. What should be done?  We need to put together, hold on high, and get all members of society to imbibe inwardly, the ethics and principles of Ubuntu, or Maat, as guide to the inner- and outer-life of members of society. We need to put together izazi zakithi, our knowledgeable and wise men and women, to produce an outline of the Curriculum for molding and developing the minds and spirit of members of our society in a manner harmonious with the teachings of Ubuntu, or Maat, and with the humanistic aspirations of Humankind. The Team must be made up of thinkers, men and women, urban and rural, literate and non-literate –it must be made up of people who think deeply and broadly.

 

The key is the Model of the human being we want the totality of our institutions to produce. This Model should be the guide for all teachers, for all culture workers, for all people in all institutions of society, in the economy, education, sports, politics, religion, family and government, etc. These knowledgeable, wise men and women shall only produce an outline of such an overall philosophy and vision of human existence. The details and specific content and form shall be the results of consultations and discussions in communities and constituencies throughout society. We are talking, first and foremost, about the “education of educators”, the need for filling the imagination, minds, and spirits of all people in civil society and government with this outline of the African vision of human existence and philosophy, so that this becomes the automatic, conscious or unconscious intention realized in their works as ordinary members of society.

 

This outline shall not, and cannot, be law: it shall and should remain a guide which should be amplified in public discussions, in school curricula, in religious discussions, serving as the formative principle in the work and activities of every institution in society. This is emphatically not thought control.  This is an outline of what type of human beings we want to produce; what type of society we want to produce; and the direction we want to take as a society. This Outline of the Curriculum for all institutions of society, and for all members of society, should be printed in millions of copies, for every member of society, for every institution of society, to be discussed in schools, in religious bodies, in social clubs, in sports clubs, in families, in political parties, in government departments and ministries, etc.

 

Our leaders in government and civil society must highlight the importance of this Curriculum and the document containing society’s ethics and philosophy for the creation of a worthy member of society. Discussion groups, workshops, seminars, and conference, should emerge by the hundreds and thousands, to discuss the Curriculum and principles of Ubuntu, or Maat, aiming to link these with our productive activities in every sphere of social life. Every government department, for instance, should demonstrate the link between its work and these principles and philosophy of Ubuntu or Maat. This, of course, shall call for a massive communication project along the entire body and spectrum of society. This shall rejuvenate society’s spiritual life, and create a new, long forgotten bond of brotherhood and sisterhood among all members of society. It shall imbue ordinary men, women and youth with a sense of purpose in society and life.

In this massive and noble work, thinkers in every community should become the leading teachers; and we should produce and develop a new type of activist –the disseminators of the principles and philosophy of Ubuntu or of Maat. The spin-off effects of such a Movement in our entire social life shall be Moral Regeneration and spiritual rejuvenation -in our schools, in sports, in religious bodies, in the economy, in theatre and arts, in politics and government, in literature, drama, poetry and music, in the conceptions and teaching of all disciplines and subjects in schools and universities, in personal, even intimate life, in family relations, in men-women relations, in relations between youth and adults, in the life of the Aged, and in relations between the younger generations and the Aged, etc.  It shall provide every individual with a sense of the meaning and direction of life in society. I stress, again, that this is not thought control. Within the framework of the Outline, there shall be great scope for individual, group, or community initiative and creativity. We shall then have the Constitution and laws of the State, at the top, as guide to behaviour, coexisting with the laws of morality, ethics, or, if you wish, the laws of God, at the bottom, as guide to behaviour, developed from the finest principles of African civilization.

 

Capitalist civilization is unique in drawing a distinction between public life (the State) and private life (family, economy, religion, culture, and social life). If historical experience is judge, the accumulated wisdom of Humankind judges capitalist civilization to be wrong and unwise in having only the laws and guideline of the State to be enforced by the collective power of society, and leaving the laws of morality, ethics, and if you please, the laws of God, to be enforced only by the interest or volition of the private, isolated individual. Let us take steps, as civil society, to correct the disastrous mistake, empowering morality and ethics in the life of all society members.

 

This program of action meets both the Cabinet’s call for “Moral Regeneration”, as well as President Mbeki’s call for a plan to make the heritage of Ubuntu the foundation for reconciliation and the reconstruction of our society.

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About Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi

Professor Herbert Vilakazi was born at Nongoma, KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa. He received his tertiary education at Columbia University, and at the New School For Social Research, both in New York City, USA. He has taught sociology and other social sciences at various tertiary institutions in and around New York City (City College of City University, Essex County College in Newark, Livingstone College, and State University of New York). He has also taught at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, and University of Zululand. He served as Deputy-Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1998 to 2004. He has also served as Special Advisor to the Premier of KwaZulu/Natal (2005-2007). He is Chairperson of Vilakazi Development Strategies.
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