After three weeks in South Africa, the last of which I’d spent on safari near Kruger National Park, I flew to Johannesburg where I had a layover of a few hours before my flight back to the states. I’d scheduled to meet a friend at an airport café.
Even after just a week, the re-entry into teeming, jostling, noisy humanity was overwhelming. So I scouted a table in an empty area opposite the cafe, where I could easily spot my friend’s arrival and also regain my equilibrium. As I took my seat, I saw the phalanx of people passing by on what I realized was a main artery of the airport.
Just come from long quiet days in a game drive truck, the silent observer in me was still in service. So my instinctive choice of a seat next to a large white column that offered some cover made sense, allowing me to gaze at the crowd without being noticed.
Such variety marched before me—people in ones and twos, in groups dressed in matching uniforms (airport personnel and sport teams) and even costumes. People with dark skin and braided hair, people with lined faces, people with fair skin and hats. And the sounds—people laughing and shouting in Zulu and English and Afrikaans as they flung by, others with eyes darting about mumbling in Japanese or Italian, and some shuffled mutely as though lost.
It looked like the world parading by, the world of humans, that is. And I pondered the difference between this observation and that from the game drive truck. I noticed that in looking at my own species, I easily picked out unique individuals, as compared to when I looked upon a herd of zebras or elephants, who more or less looked the same. Watching a herd of elephants, or even following a lone leopard through the bush, I was really only aware of the species in general. And for the most part, each species hung out with its own.
One notable exception was the vervet monkeys and the impala, which we came across in a sunny meadow one afternoon. It struck me then that this was one of the few times I’d seen two separate species markedly together. The ranger explained that they join for protection—the monkeys have the advantage of tree-climbing heights to watch for predators, whereas the impala have incredible ears to listen for them. This kind of cooperation was remarkable because it’s rare.
Back at the airport, I realized I could see in two ways—the usual way of seeing people one by one, noticing the color of hair, of shirt, of shoe, but also the safari way, seeing all as one swarming herd of a single species. And in this view, the idea of ubuntu came to me.
We’d discussed ubuntu in the leadership seminar I took during my first week in South Africa. Our conversation was based on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s essay on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in which he explains the concept. After apartheid, South Africans had to decide how to deal with its aftermath—what legal process would be used to reach justice? Consideration of the options (criminal courts like those at Nuremberg or general amnesty) resulted in a third, now renowned, choice of the TRC—the process by which the accused could admit their crimes to the victims and be forgiven. According to Tutu, the choice to forgive rather than to punish was not only a necessary one for a country in dire need to unite itself, but also a culturally aligned one—aligned with the idea of ubuntu.
As Tutu explains it, “ubuntu speaks of the very essence of being human….It is to say, ‘my humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” Rather than Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” ubuntu implies “I am because you are.” This interconnectedness is at the root of humanity, and South Africa’s ability to come together even under the most heinous conditions Tutu attributes to the worldview of ubuntu.
As I sat watching so many humans gliding by, reminding me that globalization is no longer a theory but a living reality, I thought how terribly important it is now for us to engage the view of ubuntu. It may seem like an ideal or somehow impossibly selfless, but then I recalled something else Tutu said: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic; it is the best form of self-interest.” And I saw the monkeys and the impala sitting side-by-side under soft afternoon light.
This piece is the last in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons. This series will explore leadership themes from her South Africa trip. Reynolds may be reached at RebeccaReynoldsConsulting.com. Previous posts: part I, part II, part III, part IV, part V, part VI, part VII, part VII, part IX