Ubuntu is a Zulu word that roughly translated means humanness. It is a life enhancing philosophy that puts relationships between human beings at the centre of all engagements.
Robert McBride, former ANC activist, death row inmate, parliamentarian and now chief of police in East Rand, Johannesburg, believes in Ubuntu.
Ubuntu requires a shift in mindset to practice its central outlook.
This was part of the message McBride brought to republicans all over Ireland in a series of private meetings recently.
Ubuntu evolved in his mind as the struggle to end apartheid gathered momentum and the choice of race war or compromise forced itself onto the ANC’s agenda.
Ubuntu was not part of McBride’s outlook when, as a twenty-year-old in the mid-eighties, he joined a special operations unit of the ANC to target leading members of South Africa’s apartheid regime and was told before he joined ‘think things over, you are going to die’.
Nor was he thinking in those terms when he was on death row for four of his seven years behind bars.
Nor when he was in charge of organising the defence of black people who were being massacred in their thousands by the white regime as it collapsed in on itself under pressure from the ANC.
Then his mindset was shaped by circumstances around him. In apartheid South Africa for McBride, ‘the only way to live was to fight’.
In the late seventies the apartheid government had almost crushed the ANC through ruthless state repression leaving the ANC stronger in exile than it was inside South Africa.
The formation of the United Democratic Front, UDF, in the early eighties was the turning point for the resistance movement.
Its formation was sparked by the apartheid government’s attempt to set up a ‘tricameral’ parliament for whites, coloureds and Indians. The blacks, some 26 million people, were excluded, disenfranchised, not considered as citizens with rights.
The UDF organised mass popular emonstrations. It also used the economic power of black people to destabilise the regime. Blacks refused to pay their rent, boycotted buses, white shops and businesses.
Popular resistance spread across the nation, coinciding with an international boycott of South African commerce, finance and goods.
MK, the armed wing of the ANC, took full advantage of the awakening and increased its military operations.
South Africa was on the brink of all-out civil war.
FW de Klerk, president of South Africa, stared into the abyss and retreated. The ANC was too strong.
According to McBride the whites were powerful enough to carry on for another twenty years but the price of holding on to power would have resulted in a massive loss of life.
Today South Africa is a multi-racial society. Those who once administered apartheid are at ease with themselves and the new political order.
Ralph Meyer, a minister in the last apartheid government, openly speaks of being personally liberated by not being part of a system that uses oppression to hold onto power.
Whites, coloureds and blacks are assimilated into society. They share power, respect and work with each other.
McBride never believed he would live to see the
changes that have taken place in his country.
He thought the whites too entrenched.
Looking back he now believes the whites knew it was over for them. The tide of history was against them. The opposition too strong. Change as demanded and fought for by the blacks was irreversible.
The whites had to make a deal to secure their place in the new society.
It took a long time and a lot of heartbreak for that reality to dawn on the whites, but it did.
Looking at events at the assembly over the last week it is hard not to feel as McBride once did.
But unionists here are facing what the whites faced in South Africa. They have to decide
whether to participate in shaping their future or have it shaped for them by powerful and unstoppable forces seeking change.
I am confident we too will look back on this period from a point where unionists, nationalists, loyalists and republicans are assimilated into a new society on this island.