I had never known the true meaning of Ubuntu until I went to university.
I grew up in a middle-class Anglican Xhosa home which meant that the entirety of my existence was sheltered. I went to church and came straight home. And being that I went to a private, predominantly-white girls’ school, I had never been confronted with issues of real life. Sure, we had community service schemes administered by girls who wanted to have bullet-proof (with badges) blazers and an enrichment programme that boasted township visits and pictures with little black children, but it meant nothing outside of those white walls.
I’d go so far as to say that those five years were some sordid social experiment for the young and impressionable mind. But if not for that experience, I would not have had the privilege of going to a tertiary institute.
Like some other students I lived in student residence for first year. And while on the surface, it seemed like nothing more than adult-boarding school I have learned two things.
The first being the variations of communities one will encounter. During my upbringing, I was conditioned to believe that all people lived like me and my family. We all went to church on Sundays, we all didn’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, we all prayed for the big, and sometimes the small, things. And any other way of life was wrong. It wasn’t until I sat with a group of young women from the different pockets of South Africa in a brightly-lit Dining Hall that I was informed otherwise.
I learned about different cultures beyond my scope of understanding, rich traditions and heard anecdotes that made my stomach ache with laughter. It was in that Dining Hall that I understood that our differences were not divisive. And in sharing our stories and connecting, we formed our own little band of people. Or own little community.
The second is that: my struggle is your struggle and your struggle is mine too. It is impossible to escape the student protest if you live in the heat of the action. And while it was terrifying, I could not have been more grateful for the experience. And I say that with a level of privilege that is not afforded to many South African students.
Education is imperative. That is a fact that we cannot deny, nor should it be taken away from the youth and future leaders of our country.
I watched students being intimidated. I watched students being incarcerated. I watched students being denied access to an education.
All the while, there were vigils being held on the lawns, advocates were offering up their services for students and there were private study sessions happening.
It was in this period of turmoil that the Xhosa proverb “umntu ngumntu ngabantu” rang the truest to me. “A person is a person through other people” because we are not made to live as individuals.