The Analyses of three African films with reference to Ubuntu

‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ (2002)
In Zola Maseko’s ‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ (2002) with reference to the ‘Life and Times of Sarah Baartman’ (1998), it is communicated that Sarah Baartman was a Khoi Khios and her people were South Africa’s indigenous first nation who had been slaughtered in the colonial hunting raid.

It is conveyed that her family was separated, her community destroyed and she was shipped of the London in 1810 in which at that time, the English were obsessed with human curiosities considered as freaks and fair ground attractions. Hendrik Caesar dubbed her the ‘Hottentot Venus’ where she was exhibited at Piccadilly Circus and was one of the popular freak show attractions. The popularity of Sarah’s exhibition was fuelled by the European imagination and morbid fascination with the mythical anatomy of the Khoi people. It is said that she spent five years in London where her exhibition sparked controversy and outrage and after much publicised court case she left London for Paris for a second round of public display.

Her display in Paris caught the attention of leading French scientist among them George Kuveur and Napolean Surgeon. Kuveur made up observations about her as a scientific specimen and compared her to an ape, viewing her – and her tribe – as the missing link between ‘Man’ and ‘Animal’. After her life and death, her brain and genitals were bottled and Sarah became a symbol of black woman sexuality in the 19th century in Europe. Kuveur’s experimentation on Sarah Baartman elevated his statues as a scientist and so Sarah’s remains become part of France’s heritage. In a room, many human skulls are seen, boxed together with markings penned on them. At this time it was believed that brain size was related to intelligence, but was soon disputed. Bernard Chevassus-au-Louis, President Museum National D’Histoire states;

“This idea has been disputed in Europe. Example, we realise that French philosopher, Descartes had the same size brain as Sarah Baartman’s”
(‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ [2002])

Sarah was used for scientific research and a product of materialism. Materialism being “the idea that everything is either made only of matter or is ultimately dependent upon matter for its existence and nature” to a large degree rejecting the existence of spirit or anything non-physical. ( Shutte states that the African way of looking at humanity is not materialist, in that a human being is not just an object to be understood by science and controlled by technology. That the African conception of humanity sees both spirit and matter as aspects of a more fundamental force or energy that is continually producing and developing persons throughout their lives, from birth to death. (Shutte, 2001: 8).

After the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1994 the Khoi Khios people began to pressure the new government to reclaim Sarah Baartman’s remains from the French. In Spring 2002 a delegation of ten South Africans arrived to reclaim her. Diana Ferrus a Poet and Cultural Activist was among them. She wrote and dedicated her poem ‘I’ve Come to Take You Home’ to Sarah Baartman. For many South Africans, Sarah was away from her space of Ubuntu – her community and humanity. Diana Ferrus states;

“She wanted to go home so much. Longing for home..[a]nd if I was home and longed for my mother how much more did she long for her mother and her land. Sister you got to feel the pain that your ancestor
(‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ [2002])

It is outlined in the documentary that little was known about Sarah’s impressions of Europe but with a rare interview with a French journalist, Sarah’s longing for her homeland and her people was clear. Diana Ferrus’s poem to Sara, found and translated by Anne-Sophie sent the translated poem to the Senator Nicolas About, who asked government when they were going to return Sarah’s mortal remains to South Africa. He says, the government replied saying ‘Never! We will not give Saartjie Baartman back. She is part of our French heritage. She is of scientific importance. We are going to keep the skeleton. We are not going to give it back. Only a rule of law could force us to return her’. Seeing that a rule of law was needed, Nicolas brought in a bill. He says, “I wanted to give this proposal a special dimension on a spiritual human point of view” (Maseko, 2002).

“You have the remains of a woman who was unhappy and
desperate. Why do you keep her? Let her go rest in peace.”

(‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ [2002])

Nicolas states that it is the first time in French history that a poem had been used in proposal for a Bill. The Bill was greatly appreciated and the Senators were moved. In this scene, it is evident that a shift from a scientific to a spiritual perspective had to take place in necessity for a rule to be introduced to take Sarah back to her home country. Shutte asserts that it is by belonging to a community that we become ourselves. That the community is not opposed to the individual, nor does it swallow the individual up, but enables the individual to become a unique centre of shared life. Shutte states that Ubuntu “was contained in stories and poems, recited at communal celebrations, told by parents to children. It was expressed in customs and in institutions and in a whole way of life.” Furthermore, that Ubuntu embodied a fundamental truth about humanity that had been forgotten in Africa’s time, and was truth not merely African but universal. Sarah was a victim of racism, sexism and colonialism. The French then past the legislation to allow the remains to be returned to South Africa. In her email, Anne-Sophie writes to Diana saying “Today I am proud to be the French. Taking care of Saartjie till she returns home’, having being affected by Diana Ferrus’s poem which was expressed on the level of Ubuntu – humanity. Yvette Abrahams from the Institution for Historical Research, UWC, states the following in her struggle for Sarah Baartman’s return;

“Succeeding in this struggle gives me the confidence in our
capacity to be able to change the world in the way we want it.
It’s a beautiful place to be in”
(‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ [2002])

In retrospect to indigenous African family system, Sarah’s burial highlights the important principals and spiritual values, of Ubuntu and African traditions. For the Khoi Khios and a descendent thereof, the speaker in the documentary explains the importance of honouring and lying, Sarah’s, their ancestor’s soul to rest. She declares;

“I don’t think people realise the magnitude of the presence of a spirit. Like this morning when we were in the private ceremony you could actually feel the presence of a spirit. Ever since Sarah Baartman has returned to South African soil, many things have have happened among the Khoisan people, and I believe that Sarah’s spirit has definitely contributed to it’.
(‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ [2002])

This highlights that if people work together for a common course, in this instance to bring reconciliation and restore the dignity of another immaterial of race or ethnicity, people can achieve much. It is a lesson that people should work together, in the spirit of Ubuntu, to influence societal management, achievement, celebration and reconciliation.

‘Headhunting’ (2001)
The purpose of Martin Baer documentary ‘Headhunting’ (2001) is the search of the Sultan Mkwawa’s skull, the great-grand father of Ishaka Mkwawa, who is also a narrator in the documentary. The history of the Sultan Mkwawa entails the great resistance of the German invasion in the 1880’s by the Wahehe people led by their chief Sultan Mkwawa. After a long wrestling period with the Germans, in 1898 Chief Mkwawa shot himself, after seeing he could not fight anymore, where the Germans found his dead body, cut of his head and send it to Berlin. Is-Haka Mkwawa learned about his homeland in elementary school. He had no idea that his great-grandfather had been on the East Africa’s most powerful rulers. This history began when Carl Peters went to East Africa on behalf of Germany’s colonial society in order to, as he said, “establish an empire to suit my own taste” (Headhunting’ (2001)). Peter had the chiefs, or the presumed chiefs sign ‘protection’ contracts. The colonial society proudly informed imperial chancellor Bismark that the Africans had signed over 140 000 sq kilometres of land. Peter described his method such:

“It is the same story everywhere. After brief resistance, the
Wagogo’s scattered. Torches hurled into the huts and by 4:30,
12 villages had burned down. I’ll remain here as long as just
one of you is still alive. As long as one village still exists and one
cow can be carried off”.
(Headhunting’ (2001))

Bismark coined the contracts signed as “paper with a few Negro crosses”. The natives revolted for the first time against signing contracts. The East African colonial policy soon consisted of fighting, hunting down rebels and punitive expeditions. They called it “pacification” or “a peace plan” (Headhunting’ (2001)). The colony rulers employed African mercenaries in partaking many of them from Mozambique and Sudan and were called “Ascaris”. Bismark told the commander of the mercenary force Wisomany “You only have one order: Victory!” and Wsiomany’s Ascaris were said to be victorious. The documentary mentions that the Arabs settled on the coast centuries before the German’s cam. The Arabs were respected for their religion, but were not admired for their slave trade, just as the European rulers were not admired. They were both seen as unacceptable by the Africans, as these Arabs and Europeans used violence for what they wanted. When it comes to Ubuntu, Battle explains that Ubuntu has little to do with Western humanism which situates truth in the individual’s capacity for reason and self-determination. He states that in contrast, the African concept of Ubuntu emphasises the community as defining the person. That the logical implication of Ubuntu and African conceptualizations of community, especially for Westerners, would be that individuals have no existence apart from their relations with other persons. Gabriel Setiloane, an African theologian notes and “believes that humanity is irreducibly psychophysical – body-and-soul. In such a cultural understanding to attack the body is to attack the soul in its culture (Daily Despatch, December 11, 1984). The Germans hunted and collected all kinds of trophies: tusks, furs, souvenir snapshots and Chief Mkwawa’s head. They measured, photographed and made recordings of events. It is remarked in the documentary that Chief Mkwawa sent a negotiator to the Germans, but the German commander Zelewski believed in “ruthless treatement” of the “thieving” and “insolent” Wahehe. The Wahehe’s retaliatory attack surprised the Germans. August 17, 1891, is the calendar mark where the German troops suffered the worst defeat at the hands of the East African’s. Augustine Shutte notes the following:

“We must overcome conflict and opposition in society if we are
to avoid psychological conflicts in individuals”

(Shutte, 2001: 24)
Shutte refers to Lawrence Apostle statement who says that African socialism rejects both European socialism and Western capitalism as both could (and the second necessarily must) produce a relationship between man and object. That is one of person with thing (not a meeting of forces) and because both cold produce a society in which the individual is alienated from others. He underlines that it is not the will of the majority but the will of the community that should be realised. The concept of Ubuntu observes an understanding of what it is to be human and what it is essential for human beings to develop, mature and find achievement. In the event when the German governor ordered that Chief Mkwawa’s ivory and his cattle be taken away, and when German soldiers took 1, 500 women and children prisoner, they were breaking up the community and its Ubuntu culture and spirit, their sense of community. Battle emphasises that to cause bloodshed is not only to injure a person’s body-soul but also to damage the community’s seriti (personality), which he says results in a weakened society. For Chief Mkwawa, like Sarah Baartman, the conflict with the Germans had been a damage to his seriti and to those of his tribe. The documentary aims to show that the search and return of Chief Mkwawa’s skull, like in ‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’, can be seen as a means of bringing restoration and reconciliation of the seriti. When Chief Mkwawa’s skull is ultimately taken back to its homeland, a few community members celebrate the coming of his skull. Battle asserts:

“Blood and seriti are connected in such a way that human
virtue is passed on from generation to generation. Therefore
African rituals need to be conducted to restore the constant
damage done to person’s seriti so that injured individuals do
not pass weakened seriti onto the whole community”
(Battle, 1997: 51)

The homecoming of the Chief Mkwawa’s skull to its native soil, as in ‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ underscores the importance of people working together for a common goal. Different persons, Is-haka Mkwawa and Martin Baer, from Tanzania and Germany respectively working jointly in the search and finding of Chief Mkwawa’s skull – at least it is so perceived. Bringing reconciliation and the restoration of dignity, through Ubuntu to not only Chief Mkwawa’s should, as perceived in African traditions, but also to the people of Tanzania, restoring the dignity of another regardless of race or ethnicity. Through the ethic of Ubuntu, showing and giving humanity is a tool for societal management, brings achievements, reconciliation and celebration to the community.

Hyenas (1992)

“The saddest thing is that while Africans – both young and old –
are sinking lower and deeper, burying themselves in the European
tradition, language and mannerisms, and are oppressing and
degrading their own kind, no one questions Europeans who have
been in Arica for more than 300 years, and who still hold
tenaciously to their European tradition. Yet they continue with
the support of the Africans themselves, to devaluate and
denigrate African languages, cultures and names.
(Goduka, 1999:8)

This film gives a view of a people who do not have a complete shared vision of the ethic of Ubuntu and highlights the disadvantages thereof. It concerns a woman by the name of Linguere Ramatou who, out of humiliation left her town thirty years ago, returns to her home town to revenge a man, Draman Drameh, but more distinctively the governing system of Colobane town and its tribal traditions with Western traditions. In preparation for her return, the town councillors gather to discuss her arrival and plan an evoking welcoming speech for in order that she can assist with the economy’s financial enhancement, as they say “she’s richer then the World Bank” (Hyenas (1992). As they plan the speech, they decide to incorporate words such as her “Love of justice” and “Sense of generosity”, to appeal emotionally to her, even though they don’t know her well. This reveals that they are not sincere or honest about they’re true perception about her. They resort to the use of emotional appealing words for her in order that she will invest money for Colobane’s economy. Draman Drameh, a shop owner is nominated as the town’s future mayor even though it is evident that he does not own the qualifications to be a mayor. The system is therefore not only governed by men, but patriarchal; more so, lacks quality leadership and government skills. The system does not have a solid foundation of the ethic of Ubuntu. They failed to show Ramatou humanity. Ramatou returns back with a prosthetic hand and leg, she arrays complete self-confidence, authority and shows no sign of intimidation of her people. Ramatou’s response to the Mayor’s emotional speech about her character reads “Talking is good but the truth is better”. In another response she reply’s by saying “Everybody can be bought if the price is right” (Hyenas (1992). Ramatou having felt oppressed at Colobane at her young age, perceived the governing system to be unjust, comes back to, in a sense, restore her own dignity and justify’s herself in her court hearing against Dramaan Drameh. Battle notes the following;

“The oppressed could become tomorrow’s oppressor because
Sin is an ever-present possibility,” Tutu declared, and because
“periods of transition are by definition unstable”
(Battle, 1997: 3)

Ramatou came back not only to revenge, but also to govern. Revenge and govern both the life of Draman Drameh and the system of Colobane.
Ubuntu philosophy embodies the concept of humanity, that a person’s development is fulfilled through personal relations with other people as “[p]ersonhood comes as a gift from other persons” (Shutte, 2001; 12). Battle clarifies that Ubuntu refers to the person who is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous. Affirming of others and who does not feel threatened by others. It is the proper self-assurance that a person has in knowing that they belong in a greater whole and knowing that they are diminished when another is humiliated, is diminished, is tortured, is oppressed, is treated as if they were less that who they are (Battle, 1997:35). Battle makes reference to Muendanyi Mahamba who describes someone with Ubuntu as someone who cares about the deepest needs of others and faithfully observes all social obligations. Such a person is conscious not only of personal rights but also of duties to her or his neighbour. Archbishop Desmond Tutu makes a reference to Ubuntu in his description of the African worldview:

“In the African Weltanschauung, a person is not basically an
Independent solitary entity. A person is human precisely in
being enveloped in the community of other human beings. […]
To be is to participate.”
(Battle 1997 39)

Ubuntu needs a community of persons to function. Moreover, if people do not show Ubuntu – humanity to one another, it becomes a challenge in terms of social management (i.e. values, beliefs, traditions), social celebration and reconciliation. Ramatou states “The world made a whore out of me; I will make of it a brothel”. This statement along with her prosthetic hand and leg shows that she lacks humanness, physically and emotionally. Revenge translates justice to Ramatou. To have Ubuntu, is to have a sense of family. The film seems to communicate that Ramatou’s society seemed to have failed to have imparted this value to her successfully, as they themselves did not have a strong backbone or foundation of Ubuntu. A level of Ubuntu is noted where society members initially refuse to kill Drameh for her money, but they, with time, give in, trading at the same time, their little bit of Ubuntu ethics they had. As one of the community leaders states “Does she [Ramatou] thinks we’re Americans, we’d kill each other”. Placing money – capitalism – above the life of a human being, which has been generally perceived as the Western and European ways of tradition, especially during the colonial period. It is evident that Ramatou lacks forgiveness, this is because she was not shown forgiveness by her society. She has no sense of high values, no sense of religion to carry her. No ancestry, completely individualist and has her own system – the Western/European system which is the only system she’s got and chooses to rule with. The death of Draman Drameh, can be seen not only as the death of a human but of also as a symbol of the little humanity left in Colobane society. The Westernisation of Africans through the death of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu therefore implies, as expounded by Shutte that Ubuntu implies more that a non-racial, non-sexist and non-exploitive society as seen in the key characters in the (a) ‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ (2002), ‘Headhunting’ (2001) and ‘Hyenas’ (1992). Rather, that it “a touchstone by which the quality of society has to be continually tested, no matter what ideology is reigning. [that] [I]t must be incorporated not only in the society of the future but also in the process of the struggle towards that future” (Battle 1997: 46). Tutu says that his “gaze is neither African nor European , but human” (Battle 1997: 46) and that persons are more than black or white, but human. In this way, no one would have to suffer at the expense of the other, such as in the cases of ‘The Return of Sarah Baartman’ and ‘Headhunting’. Ubuntu is the concept for the obtained quality of humanity, that which portrays the characteristic of developed persons within the community and its societal management. The most essential is the mind-set towards other persons, who see and treat other persons as an extension of themselves or as “another self” ((Battle 1997: 31). “Africans must conquer with humanism” (Goduka, 1999:37). In ‘Hyenas’, outlines that the absence of Ubuntu leads to the turmoil of imperative values, culture, traditions, etc. A society which does not have a strong back bone of Ubuntu – humanity, cannot bring across a shared vision – a unified social identity, fostering good societal management, societal achievement, reconciliation and celebration well successfully. With the ethic of Ubuntu as a formation of social identity and a means to influence societal management, achievement and celebration can bring forth reconciliation in a people’s society or community.

• Battle, Michael. Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu. The Pilgrim Press, 1997
• Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary .2003
• Maseko, Zola. The Return of Sarah Baartman’ (2002)
• Baer, Marting. Headhunting (2001)
• Diop, Djibril Hyenas (1992).
• Nel, Francois. Writing for the Media. University Press, 2001
• Goduka, Maqhudeni Ivy. Affirming Unity In Diversity In Education. Cape Town, 1999
• Shutte, Augustine. Ubuntu: An ethic for a New South Africa. Cape Town, 2001