As an outside observer of the American health reform debate, I cannot help but notice the disparity of views, the fractured arguments, the protectionism and desperation. My country is in a similar struggle for health care reform, with the main difference being America is a rich nation, and we are poor by comparison. In both debates, however, I have looked for the humanitarian argument, and in many cases found it lacking. Much of what appears to be missing can be summed up in the African phrase “Ubuntu.”
I am a ‘white’ African and must defer to someone with the right credentials to explain what ‘Ubuntu’ really is. There is no one better than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a struggle icon in South Africa’s past, and a bold and courageous critic of our current progress as a new democracy.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999) from Wikipedia:
“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu further explained Ubuntu as follows (2008):
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
Imagine a health reform debate where this quality becomes a central issue! How rational can an argument against the general principles of ‘ubuntu’ be? Will all issues not become more transparent?
My belief is that health care reform should be seen as a global issue as important as global warming. Ubuntu tells us we cannot operate in isolation. The consequences of American health reform will reverberate through the world. To ignore this connectedness will have similar negative ramifications as ignoring the threat of global climate change. Perhaps we need a catch phrase similar to ‘global warming’ that becomes a rallying call for change – ‘ubuntu health’ perhaps?
Human beings originated in Africa. Geneticists tell us we share a common great…great grandfather, that we are all, irrespective of color, race or creed, cousins. Africa is our ancestral home. Ubuntu is an African consciousness pulling us all into one global family, where we can care about each other emphatically.
There is no place in an honest quest for healthcare reform for protectionism and selfish self-interest – the principles of ubuntu are critical. Follow them, and success is almost guaranteed, ignore them and fail.
Barack Obama is as much African as he is American. We can be sure that he understands exactly what ‘ubuntu’ means. And while America debates, the world watches and waits.
Martin Young, an otolaryngologist in South Africa, is founder of ConsentCare.
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