Transversal bridging of African and womanist standpoints: Seeking a life-affirming global ethic

In her article in Environmental Values 27.3 (June 2018) entitled ‘Ubuntu and ecofeminism: Value-building with African and womanist voices’, Inge Konik (University of the Free State) engages in a transversal theoretical bridging of the African ethic of ubuntu and materialist ecological feminism. In this blog she summarises the key arguments of her article, which she posits as part of the vital search for a life-affirming global ethic. The article may be read here (paywall applies)

Echoing scholars of movement activism, most notably S.A. Hamed Hosseini, I point out that because the socially- and ecologically-destructive neoliberal hegemony is at least partly dependent on the successful implementation of divide-and-rule strategies, it is essential for political and cultural resistance movements, in response, to engage in alliance-building in earnest – so practising what amounts to a transversal politics. But while such alliance-building appears to be well under way among certain social movements, facilitated in part through platforms like the World Social Forum, I argue that similar transversal tactics are much-needed in the theoretical domain as well. Through bringing to recognition deep resonances between what in appearance might be considered radically different thought traditions, dialogues can be initiated between thinkers from different parts of the world, and life-affirming ethical frameworks can potentially be synthesised from these exchanges. Such frameworks, in turn, stand to feed into movement politics, by helping to give movements conceptual clarity regarding their own purpose and aims, and by providing them with opportunities to test the theoretical frameworks themselves. In the latter regard, given the complexity of contemporary contexts and crises – a result of the unavoidable interweaving of social and economic relations through globalisation – it will not do simply to evoke indigenous perspectives or practices in any straightforward fashion. This is because such an approach might encourage an isolationist identity politics stance, or an uncritical aestheticisation of indigenous worldviews, in the process ignoring the above-described reality of the interweaving of relations in the contemporary world. It is, of course, still important to bring marginalised yet ethically-significant indigenous knowledge systems into the spotlight in the process of placing these in dialogue with traditions or movements that already enjoy global recognition, and relatedly, that already possess political momentum. Key to efforts such as these is a culturally-open stance, and this is the point of departure for the forthcoming article in which I bring philosophical ideas, often placed under the umbrella of ubuntu, into a conversation with materialist ecological feminism.

This transversal theoretical exercise makes good sense, because historically-speaking, women across the world and indigenous peoples in the global South, have experienced comparable forms of marginalisation, disempowerment and exploitation under the patriarchal capitalist economic regime. Both groupings of people have been framed as inferior, by gender or race, to the ideal of ‘Western man’, and have actually also been conceived as ‘closer to nature’ such that their bodies and labours became considered as free resources. Ecological feminists like Ariel Salleh and ubuntu philosophers like Mogobe Ramose have thematised these linkages between the oppression of women and indigenous peoples, and have also identified how these oppressions parallel the abuse of ‘nature’ so-called. The life-affirming values that, in response, are promoted by such thinkers, work against these dynamics of oppression. Both ecofeminism and ubuntu oppose dualistic thought, which operates to legitimise those hierarchies that underpin exploitative relations. Both traditions also focus on the development of a self-understanding that is very different from the identity striven for by the consumerist narcissist. For example, while ecofeminists argue that the identity formation of care-givers is a continual and open process, which unfolds in response to relations with human and nonhuman others, African thinkers likewise argue that personhood is achieved with other people and that the person is but one part of a veritable web of relations. They offer in this respect the image of a tree, where the ancestors (who are also deserving of care) are the roots, the adults the trunk, and the children and future generations the branches, leaves, flowers, and seeds.


Tree representing African onto-triadism. Courtesy of Tarryn Rennie, Nelson Mandela University.

Furthermore, both thought traditions emphasise protection of community, a focus that runs counter to the hyper-individualism entailed in capitalist accumulation. That is, the materialist ecofeminists write about how such contemporary hyper-individualism is related to an atomised, disembodied, and un-ecological understanding of the world, and that care-givers through their daily tasks, in contrast, realise and live in relation to their interdependence with others. Ubuntu theorists, in their turn, remind us of traditional ways of seeing life that mirror such perspectives. For example, they point out that in many sub-Saharan African cultures, precisely because of human beings’ condition of interdependence, and because of the importance of acknowledging this for the proper development of one’s own personhood within a community, valuing money over others is seen to be highly problematic. The maxim feta kgomo o tshware motho (go past the cow and hold the human being) voices this, remembering that in these indigenous cultures cattle are seen as a primary source of personal economic wealth and thus pose a threat to the social fabric.

Nguni cow. Courtesy of Tarryn Rennie, Nelson Mandela University.

In the forthcoming article I identify and explore these and other resonances between the two traditions, and elaborate on how the two traditions might learn from one another. Both traditions point toward an alternative future founded on care, and should feature prominently in our search for a life-affirming global ethic. The study also reveals the value of transversalism: it offers opportunity to elevate and/or recuperate hitherto-marginalised indigenous knowledge systems, and at the same time it brings these systems into the wider self-reflexive dialogue concerning alternative futures.

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