26 September 2005
President Thabo Mbeki has urged South Africans to look at the question of identity and how the country’s heritage can help define it. Speaking at Heritage Day celebrations in Taung, North West on Sunday, Mbeki said there was a need to identify what distinguished South Africans from other nationalities.
“What are the characteristics that inform the manner in which a South African approaches a variety of matters and challenges?” he asked. “We need to answer this question because a Heritage Day celebrated by all suggests that we have a past to be proud of.”
Mbeki said South Africans had a heritage that helped them face more than challenges, and a value system that guided their behaviour at the individual, family and community level.
However, he pointed out that it may not be possible to speak of a single South African character and identity, because of the country’s cultural diversity.
“There is no dispute that we are a diverse society,” he said. “All of us have consistently urged that we use this diversity as a strength to unite our people.”
But within this diversity, he said, are dominant values that bind communities together and ensure social cohesion. These values drive communities to act in solidarity with the weak and the poor, and help community members behave in a particular way for the common good.
“African people in this country have over centuries evolved a value system of ubuntu, with its basic tenet motho ke motho ka batho ba bang [a person is a person through other people],” Mbeki said
“Many of us have been brought up to uphold values based on this old African adage. Through this socialism many Africans have ensured that our families and communities are grounded on the value system.”
Mbeki stressed that other South African groups, such as the Afrikaner, Indian and Jewish communities, had value systems consistent with ubuntu.
Ubuntu means people first
The South African government and civil society is today using the philosophy of ubuntu in their approach to solving problems, Mbeki said.
He cited the Batho Pele (People First) campaign, which encourages civil servants to place people’s interests first when doing their work.
The government has also initiated programmes based on elements of ubuntu – such as Letsema (Working Together) and Vuk’uzenzele (Arise and Act) – to mobilise people to act together and advance the objectives of a better life, he said.
But Mbeki acknowledged that the country had not done enough to articulate what ubuntu meant, or to promote “this important value system” so it could define the identity of South Africa.
“There has not been a campaign to ensure that ubuntu becomes synonymous with being South African,” he said. “We have a responsibility to use the positive attributes of buntu to build a nonracial, nonsexist and united South Africa.”