Ubuntu As South Africa’s Forcefield: An Interview With Drucilla Cornell

The following is is an interview from 2008 that I had hoped to publish that year along with other submissions for the Subverses Journal Project. That never happened, but this interview still stands and has been hidden on a hard drive for too long, but not anymore:

Charles: Thank you for joining me for this interview Drucilla. We are here to talk about ubuntu, South Africa, and surrounding political and philosophical concepts. To start, I was wondering if you could tell me about the powerful ethical concept of ubuntu and why it is that within African philosophy it eludes definition?

Drucilla: Well I think what makes ubuntu a little bit hard for us to translate into a language like English is that it is both used as what we would think of as something close to an ethical ideal, but its also used to describe a person’s character as in someone who has or doesn’t have ubuntu. Its also used in an active verbal way to describe relationships between people in a particular community or setting. So there’s layers of it. I think its the layered aspect of ubuntu that makes it hard to understand.

None of the stereotypes about ubuntu fit. Its not a simple communitarian ethic. Its like the African principal of transcendence in a certain way, in which individuals are expected to be able to pull themselves out of their own privatized self-interested view of any particular context to be able to think about what is the other person’s point of view, and what is the point of view of the community as a whole. This is why sometimes it sloppily gets identified as communitarianism. But its this idea that you pull yourself out of yourself to be able to see the bigger picture. As an ideal, it implies in a certain sense this notion of transcendence, and it implies this ideal of humanity which is connected to it. That we’re not just creatures embedded in our basic instinctual drives, we can always be more than that. But how we are more than that has to do ultimately not just with us individually living up to this ideal, but also developing a character over time in which we are able to do that, which is why you can oftentimes hear ubuntu expressed in parables. The famous parable is you know someone has ubuntu when their walkway to their door is thoroughly beaten in the dust. So that the way of thinking about a person who has ubuntu is that they live up to this sense of coming out of oneself and taking the standpoint of the bigger picture in the community and living up to that. That’s why you have the beaten path.

The third level is this idea that its a way of living together. Say there is a community where somethings happened in it like you have stolen my car; ubuntu is about restoring us to an ethical relationship with each other. Because if you steal my car, it doesn’t just effect me, it effects my family who may have bought the car for me, it effects your family because now you’ve done something thats wrong in the community. So the idea here is when there is a fracture in the community, that you have to put it back together again.

Now most radically—in a certain way put forward by Justice Yvonne Mokgoro—ubuntu may encompass all of the ideas that we think of as dignity, justice and freedom. Indeed she has provocatively argued recently that ubuntu may actually be therefore, from an African philosophical perspective, what founds the great ideals of the New South African Constitution. So a lot of the simple things that get said about ubuntu don’t take into account those three layers.

Charles: Where do you see the Kantian project that has had such a big influence on you fit in with ubuntian ethics? At first glance they seem like they’d complement one another, but I don’t want to assume that a Western ethics should be conceptually imposed here.

Drucilla: Well, I think its very important to see that the one thing they share is this idea of transcendence. For Kant, we at least have the possibility to transcend our own immediate self interest and to ask ourselves the question, “What ought I to do?” The categorical imperative is a form of formal law in which we legislate to ourselves what is the right thing to do, and it has to be formal and universal, because in a certain sense the only law that would take us out of our experience, and therefore claim universal validity, would have to be one that is universal in the strong sense, beyond experience. This leads Kant to say that human beings have two basic viewpoints. One is the viewpoint as phenomenal creatures. One is the viewpoint as a noumenal creature. Its our ability to transcend that allows us to view ourselves as a practical matter, never as a theoretical matter, as beings who can not only ask ourselves “what ought we to do?” but “what ought we to do together?” I think that’s very important because Kant is oftentimes thought of as for individuals, but that completely loses track of the idea that if we were to take our maxim and make it a law of nature, it would not only be a law of nature of revising my character, but a law of nature of revising the social world in which we live in. This is what Rawls would have called the socially adjusted reality, in accordance with this ideal.

So there is a great deal of resonance between certain aspects of Kantian moral philosophy and African philosophy in that they emphasize transcendence, that they emphasize this ability to be able to legislate together in accordance with an ideal. And this is what gives me hope for the New South Africa because, the dignity jurisprudence, at least in some judges, is explicitly rooted in Kant.

They are of course both philosophically rooted in very different traditions because, for the South African philosophical viewpoint, at least what i know of it now, there wouldn’t be this split between the phenomenal and the noumenal, at least not in the same way, even though both share the principle of not only transcending yourself to the larger community, but transcending yourself and building your moral character. For certain branches of African philosophy at least, we are rooted in a kind of forcefield that is part of our nature. So that the idea of you being an individual and me being an individual is almost an illusion for an African philosopher. We are rooted in a forcefield in which everything you do effects me. As a result of that, the motivation is perhaps better explained in African philosophy than in Kant, why we would have to think together. Because again, using the car example, you steal my car but it effects this much wider spectrum of people. If someone were to walk into this restaurant and hurt someone else and you and I did nothing, that would actually effect the forcefield in which we are living. So the great question of moral motivation in which Kant asked is actually answered in African philosophy. Even if you are passive, and have not actively done anything wrong, if you don’t act then you are undermined in terms of the forcefield in which you are living with other people. So it has a different, if you will, ontological base, but the hope perhaps for a profound overlapping consensus is that it shares enough in terms of this idea of transcendence, and the possibility of reconciliation in terms of restoring yourself to an ideal.

Charles: The idea of ontological forcefields that African philosophy includes seems in sharp contrast to how Western philosophy for the most part speaks of the individual. Foucault may be a good place to start to understand where and why the apparent divisions between people exist in Western society, but I feel there is also some unique insights in African philosophy that could remedy Foucault’s pessimism towards power. So if you could comment more on these forcefields and maybe render Western society in terms of them compared with the way Foucault might do so?

Drucilla: One way of understanding the diffuseness of power, is this forcefield. We use power in Marxist terms usually by saying someone has power over someone else. But with this idea of a forcefield, power is what is actually connecting us to one another. Foucault uses it, though, in a way that is very influenced by a deep background of western capitalism. Power operates behind our backs, in a sense, and in a way limits us. Serety would say of course that’s right, that power was energy and power as what makes us who we are and how we are. But often in Foucault, despite what he says, it carries this negative implication, like biopower is constituting who we are. For Serety it doesn’t necessarily carry the negative connection at all, it just carries the fragility. In other words, if you and I live in an advanced capitalist society, we are in fact connected in a forcefield, but its a forcefield in which as Marx would say, we are no longer the agents that are acting in it. I think Foucault almost took that for granted: biopower acts on us, but we don’t act back on it. And if we do, somehow or another we’ve been shaped to have to do it in a particular way.

In a certain sense, what Serety says is if someone does wrong on someone else and you don’t act, that then has shaped the whole forcefield, but if you do act then your action has shaped the whole forcefield. So it is much more—if you wanted to use the tradition of German Idealism—dialectical in its relationship to this notion of the circulation of power as energy. But then it also says—and of course Foucault was going there too—that its a fantasy in a way that there’s just an individual out there by themselves. We are not just connected, we are constantly being shaped by this power , or energetics, that shapes the atmosphere in which we live. Now I don’t know the Khosa or Zulu word for atmosphere, but I’ve been recently told its very important.

So we live in an atmosphere of fragmentation, which paradoxically is a way of being connected. So, the idea that you and I can’t—this is what i think leads to Foucault’s “Its always behind your back and it always constitutes or limits your action”—see the dialectic with the agent who then reshapes it, or the agents who reshape it is because its so much a part of advanced capitalism that it acts behind our backs and there’s nothing we can do about it. So the paradox is from an African point of view that we are living in a forcefield of disconnection. Its still a forcefield, its still acting up us, but we are no longer acting upon it.

Now, and this is a lot of what i think Marx meant by commodity fetishism, we are in this force that’s so called capital. We have made it, it acts back on us, we think it shapes us and there’s nothing we can do about it. So a lot of the relationships of capitalism are such that it does act behind our backs. Us being turned into the very machines that can no longer do anything about what ironically we have created. And so, in that way, i think that, I am an admirer of Foucault, but if you read much Foucauldian work, the whole notion of biopower is somehow or another insidious. Serety says “yes, its insidious, because it makes us so fragile.” If we do not act we can end up living in a state of collapse, and certainly ethical collapse with one another. But if we act, we can actually change that. This of course, if you get back to Judge Mokgoro saying the entire South African Constitution is rooted in this ethic of ubuntu, then is part of what the call is for every South African to live up to building this new energetic field of relationships to one another that are no longer deeply inscribed, if you want to use Foucault’s language, by biopower or race. That disrupts it, that changes it, that acts it, that makes it something that can be restored to an ethical way of being together.

However, for Foucault power is always negative, like Judy Butler wrote “the psychic life of power.” How we are constituted to be melancholic. How in a sense it disrupts the autonomy of the subject to have agency. What Serety says is that its something like it, but it doesn’t have that insidious implication to it. I think Foucault is shaped by that insidious implication because he’s always working with the idea that technology is behind our back and that in a certain sense the fragmentation is such that nothing we can do could ethically reshape those power relationships.

Charles: How does the South African Constitution fit into this picture? It seems it plays a very important role and carries a lot of meaning with it, especially in relative comparison to the relationship people here in the United States have to their constitution.

Drucilla: I think there is a couple things to say about the South African Constitution. The first is that its an explicitly transformative constitution, and this is getting back to Mokgoro, and her provocative statement about ubuntu. If you go back to Serety and the idea of restoring a different energetic field that’s been disrupted by horrible violence, then the idea of ubuntu is that the constitution is a symbol of that struggle to change, to restore a different way of being that is not inscribed in deeply deeply deeply racist divisions, and of course sexist divisions, of that society. So, on the one hand, its explicitly transformative towards an ideal of a reconciled community that’s been violently drawn apart.

The second thing is that its not only a transformative constitution, but its not a limited vertical constitution. A vertical constitution is like the United States where basically the constitution tells us which division of government is to do what, and secondly it prevents certain disruptions of individual lives on the part of the state. So you have the state up here, and you have the vertical protection of the individual against the state. Then there’s indirect vertical constitutions like the German Constitution which says: “The spirit of the constitution is to purvey all the laws in the country.” Then there is the South African Constitution which has pure horizontality, which is to say that every single engagement between two people can potentially be a constitutional question. This is very hard for westerners to even comprehend. The constitution is just supposed to be about setting out what the executive does, what the legislature does, what the judiciary does, and protecting us against certain state interventions. But this is a very different idea, and again perhaps Mokgoro is right, that you can best understand that from an African philosophical point of view which is that if people continue to be racist in their behavior, then what will happen is that the need for transformation will be completely blown apart. So, the constitution is both the law, in fact its the only source of legality in South Africa, but its also a symbol of a set of moral and ethical mandates, in which you and I have to both change our characters, and change together the way in which we are living with one another.

The idea of pure horizontality really has two ethical dimensions. The first is something I have been talking about in terms of German idealism, which introduces horizontal thinking: you and I are profoundly equals with one another. The second idea of horizontality is to actually say that the relationships that have usually been privatized will no longer be privatized. Because, it makes no sense, to say that you can ever step out of this ethical forcefield. If you think that you can live your own private life as a racist, you are deeply diluted, because that’s effecting everything around you. So yes, it actually does mean legally that if you are a black woman who is excluded from a bridge club, you could bring a constitutional case about it. But it also indicates the falseness of a certain notion of privacy, that is that somehow or another you could just withdraw and have your own sphere of individual liberty that would effect no one else. So, the constitution is drawn up very differently, and its certainly drawn up differently because it was part of a substantive revolution even though it left the Roman-Dutch law intact, and it left the Supreme Court of Appeal intact, making it not a full Kelsenian revolution. It didn’t just wipe out what was the law of the land before the transition to power to Mandela, but on the other hand it did deny them any force of legality. So there is a real sense in which its a very different idea of the constitution than the very old and very limited one we have.

Charles: To continue with the fact that there are some laws still in existence that don’t really have full legitimacy, I was wondering what kind of effect ubuntian ethics have had on the shaping of the body of laws. For instance, has it led to more of a rolling back of laws that were existing that created and solidified this private sphere, or has ubuntu brought about more positive laws, meaning new laws added to the books?

Drucilla: Well, one way of thinking is about the constitution as the only source of legality in South Africa. So, there are laws that are on the books, but whether or not they have any source of legality will turn on whether they are consistent with the constitution. So every law can potentially come up for being reviewed. There are no longer two tracks of law: Roman-Dutch law and the constitution, or even Zulu law and the constitution. The force of legality resides in the constitution, which means that all laws have to be drawn into existence, into congruence with the constitution, and the constitution which we have just discussed, is this ethical document. So in a certain way, yes, certain laws will be struck down as being inconsistent, certain laws will be rewritten so as to be rendered consistent, and certain forms of affirmative action will be legitimated because they are necessary for restitutional equality under this constitution. The South African Constitution under Section 9 militantly protects what we call affirmative action in this country. So yes, there are certain laws that would be mandated that we would call affirmative. And again, thats a big difference between the South African Constitution and the United States Constitution because all of our rights, all of our narrow vertical rights against the government, are negative. They can’t search your house, they can’t force you to incriminate yourself. On the other hand the South African Constitution says everybody has a right to a house, so the notion of affirmative obligation is part of the transformation. So you actually have affirmative obligation in the constitution, which is why to take the debate about affirmative into the South African context is almost inconsistent. It stood out when there were certain affirmative moves the government had to make, to make up for the badges of slavery and black people in the United States because normally the government just has to stay off your back. But when you have a constitution that promises you things like a house, as a social-economic right, then the constitution has affirmative obligations actually written into the document.

Charles: Do you think that the people will consistently be behind the constitution to make sure that no sort of neo-colonialist and neo-aparthedian aspects creep back in to South Africa? What sort of struggles do you see occurring now and in the future?

Drucilla: Yes, I think there are going to be a lot of struggles ahead. First of all particularly this kind of constitution is obviously a lot more ethically demanding than a constitution that just keeps the state off your back—when we [the United States] had that constitution because as you know we have basically lost the Fourth and Fifth Amendment in this country, so we don’t even have those negative protections in the same way we used to. There will be a big battle first and foremost over what is the standing of the constitution in South Africa in the foreseeable future. As you may or may not know, Mbeki, who is the current president, wanted to reform the constitution so he could run for president for a third term, but he didn’t do that because he felt that the Constitutional Court would turn that down. And Zuma is now going to the Constitutional Court to fight charges of corruption. So, whether the Constitutional Court denies his appeal will then mean that Zuma will be in jail and there’ll be likely to be a compromise candidate in the AMC. So there will be actually a battle over the role the constitution and the Constitutional Court I think in the next ten years in South Africa.

There’s several reasons for this. The population is obviously a majority black. You have the example of Zimbabwe, which would seem to be a negative example, but for many its also a positive example of somebody who just stood up to the white people and said, “Go home, you never should have been here in the first place.” So parliamentary sovereignty and a return to it can seem like the logical way of saying, “Well black people should rule this country, not a group of judges.” So it has a kind of appeal, so there’ll be a battle over what kind of democracy and parliamentary democracy . Does it have to mean, or should it mandate a return to this idea of sole parliamentary sovereignty, which is exactly how Mugabe moved in Zimbabwe. He said, “We don’t need a constitution, we should just have parliamentary sovereignty. We are all black, we should vote together to create a general will and to institute a general will.”

You also have a deeper problem, which is Mandela initially organized a program that was much more social democratic in structure, and Mbeki has rolled that back. So you now have almost privatization of not only natural resources, but privatization of all the major services, like electricity and water. And there was and has been a big anti-privatization campaign against this kind of neo-liberal policy. The neoliberal policies have created a black elite, but the huge number of black people in South Africa are in relentless poverty. So not only will there be the fight over the constitution, but there’ll be the fight over socialism vs. capitalism. And the two struggles are related in a way because part of the way in which apartheid gets privatized is that you allow class divisions to take place within the black community itself. So you end the formal apartheid and allow a certain group of blacks to enter into the ruling party. But you in a no way actually touch what apartheid has done, which has impoverished the vast majority of blacks in South Africa. The battle for the soul of South Africa is beginning, and it will go on.

Charles: Could you speak of how South Africa’s choice to get rid of their atomic bomb fits into this picture, and if it still has an effect on the ideal of what South Africa can and should be in the world?

Drucilla: I think its been lost in a whole series of arms deals that the ANC has been involved in. A huge discussion about whether or not and how big South Africa’s armed forces have to be. To some degree you could see a positive argument for it. Something like Rwanda happens, you need an armed South Africa to go in and actually be able to dispense peace, rather than relying on the ineffective UN that is usually the case, and like in a place like Rwanda, the inactivity of the United States. On the other hand, there have even been people that have argued that South Africa should begin a nuclear program again now, because the United States is the only country in the world that has nuclear weapons and therefore people feel the need to be able to threaten the United States back. So ironically with all of this brouhaha, first about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, now about Iran and weapons of mass destruction, it actually goes the other way, which if you don’t have weapons of mass destruction you can’t stand up to the empire.

So I think that the gesture is certainly still there that the New South Africa would never use those kinds of weapons of terror, and it is a weapon of terror. An atomic bomb is obviously targeting a civilian population in the millions, to obliterate them, to kill them , to wipe them out, and to cause such enormous physical suffering in those who survive and in the generations to come that the very concept of a people is obliterated. So it is perhaps the most terroristic weapon that’s ever been unleashed. So yes, I think that certainly resonates with the whole spirit of transformation, but as South Africa has come to be a very important nation state in Africa, the issue of armed forces and what kind of armed forces along with the threat of the United States has given us a whole new set of questions that have to be addressed.

Charles: I wanted to ask you how the mood, the associated struggles, and in terms of philosophy the idea of an interwoven forcefield seen in South Africa might be transported to the United States? How might something like ubuntu be realized on the local level here in what seems to be a very disconnected society, a disconnection that I’d like to see challenged and overcome?

Drucilla: Well for me, my own resonance with ubuntu began in my feminist consciousness raising group blaz granudis, which was an activist consciousness raising group, in which we supported each other through day to day hardships. We understood, by giving each other that kind of mutual support, that we were actually empowering each other to change who we were, and then change who we were as a group. In the labor movement we were often fighting to get a union to represent us, but we were also acting in union. Again, the experience of acting in union, is one in which you begin to feel yourself as the shapers of power, rather than just simply being acted upon, or having your relationships with other people constituted by something that seems always to be operating behind your back and that undermines you, or limits you, in some very insidious way.

I think the real problem which we are facing in a society like this of advanced capitalism is how much people have lost this sensibility that allows them to be put in touch with what mutual support actually gives people. I don’t want to say how it actually allows them to maximize their utility, but what it actually gives people, because we’ve become so fragmented then its like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each man or woman for him or herself because there isn’t anyone whose going to support them otherwise. Not the government, not other individuals, not the intermediate societies like the labor unions which have now shrunk to almost nothing. So people have very few experiences like I did, of this kind of solidarity which is really about acting together, but in a way in which you actually feel like you are reshaping who you are as a group, and remaking who you are as an individual. So I don’t have any easy answers to offer you. I think you doing something like setting up this journal is a good example of a way of getting a different voice out, but also working with other people to get a different voice out.

Charles: I always was fond of the idea of consciousness raising groups. Their seemed to be something in yours that helped you all maintain a positive outlook even in a grim situation, something maybe that is sometimes sought for but lacking in a lot of today’s activist groups. Many groups I have attended during my college years would have fluctuating attendance and some would end up calling it quits or would lose patience with the particular cause in question. Do you have any suggestions or remedies?

Drucilla: Well one example of not giving up, in 2003, Ansnital and I both had been activists against the bombing of Afghanistan. We’d been working with a lot of different coalitions in groups, and we actually didn’t even know each other that well. We had been in the same circles, but had never worked closely together, and we decided to try to form an organization called Take Back the Future that would both have an activist component: we marched in all the big demonstrations against the war in Iraq, we also became very active in the Defend the Bill of Rights movement, and the attempt to actually pass in the New York City Council a motion against the compliance with the USA Patriot Act. We supported the Muslim community when they were being forced to re-register. We actually also went and supported a number of young black groups, who found themselves in the situation of being forced to either choose prison or go into the army.

So we were very much an activist group, but in terms of what you said about ubuntian support, we also now developed the idea of having monthly meetings to discuss issues, but also sometimes just to discuss the sense of disaffiliation, the sense of marginalization, the sense of isolation. So that the group itself would be doing two things. We would be putting out these feelings of disempowerment on the table. But it would also be creating an environment of mutual support which slowly we felt that we were not alone anymore. And I’m very proud to say that going into 2008, Take Back the Future is an organization that’s still going strong. Its one of the things that I’m proud to say that I’m a part of and with Ansnital was a co-founder. When we started it, nothing was happening, there were no real feminist peace groups existing, and we just decided to call for a meeting and get it together. But then after all the activities, all the marching, all the being in the streets, we also decided that wasn’t enough in terms of sustaining ourselves, and so we came together. As I said, sometimes we actually speak about issues, about legislation, about where we might go next in our activism, but oftentimes we also talk more about that sense of marginalization, disaffiliation, and how we can support each other through that.

I think that was a very important move in Take Back the Future, because there was so much activism demanded of us when we first formed. The beginning of war with Iraq at that time. And even together, and I think this is where the idea needing to meet on a regular basis came in, even if we weren’t planning for an action, came out of the fact that a group of us were actually painting our take back the future signs the night that Baghdad was bombed. We were all together, and it was horrible watching, because as you know Bush went in early, so to speak, and we were together sharing that experience. I mean, of course we were all horrified, but we were at least together. And I think out of that, we really came to see it wasn’t enough just to build a coalition. Of course you need to do this activism, but also to build a group that sustained it with each other. And sustained each other on the level of thinking about new ways of being leftists. But also just giving each other mutual support. So in that sense I think the institutionalization of our monthly meetings has become a very important and sustaining part of the group. Perhaps the group would have splintered by now, or shattered by now just out of exhaustion if we didn’t also build in this supportive part of it.

Charles: I can think of nothing more to ask, thank you very much Drucilla for your time.

Drucilla: Of course, thank you Charley.

To read Drucilla’s related work about Africa and Ubuntu please visit:


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