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Op-eds

Expanding our ‘we’

  • MarcLubner
If we at Afrika Tikkun can have one legacy, it is this: the act of compassionate connection. This is kindness that embraces individual value and difference and that develops potential.
by MARC LUBNER | Nov 02, 2017

We draw this from our founders - Bertie Lubner and Rabbi Cyril Harris, both of blessed memory. They demonstrated how tzedakah and ubuntu can complement one another in the work of nation building.

In South Africa today, that value of connectedness is under assault. The challenges and occasionally the pain of connecting across cultures, has given way to some of the worst behaviour of which humans are capable.

As Jewish people, this is a moment not to withdraw, but to engage and connect. Our faith teaches us to care first and foremost for our own community, but this should not preclude us from caring for the greater community of South Africa.

We, as Jews in South Africa, whether we were born here or are naturalised, should also have a sense of obligation and responsibility to the communal “we” of South Africa.

The “we” of South Africa’s first democratic elections was completely inclusive. It was a remarkable and important moment in South Africa’s history that we need to continually go back to, to remind ourselves of the power of that inclusivity.

The politics of who “we” includes and who it excludes is determined by social conventions and outlook, by history and economic conditions. They in turn determine economic strategies.

It is possible in our day to understand the rise of the alt-right in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom, as a direct result of who “we” and “they” are in the understanding of the American, British and European people. Countries that are succeeding in our times are those that are expanding their horizons around “we”.

Diversity adds value. This is something we can learn from millennials. The best of them are able to navigate the world more effectively than any previous generation. They have embraced a sense of community that is far greater than what has gone before.

Look at Facebook and how it has grown foreign countries’ economies because it is making connections accessible in ways that government can’t. Look at online learning initiatives like the opportunity created by LinkedIn and Lynda.com.

Through these social media initiatives, the concept of “we” grows bigger than one country, collective or culture can contain. It breaks barriers that in turn democratises nations and ignites their economies.

The problem in any environment where the definition of who we are, becomes too limiting, is that it leads to division and a spiral of reciprocal hostility. Others reject us and we reject others.

Our definition of “we” should begin by acknowledging that we are members of the same human race – we all come from the same source, the same G-d ultimately. We are also South Africans, with a national interest at heart. This should influence and affect our sense of life purpose.

The remarkable thing is that our identities as self, faith, family, city, country do not need to be exclusionary. We can still care about ourselves individually and we can still care about our families, without having to compromise on our sense of nationalism.

It only becomes a problem when we see these as either/or identities or sets of loyalties. I strongly believe that one of the responsibilities that we as Jews have is to share whatever resources, capital, talents, connections and ideas come our way with as a broad a community possible.

Equally, the concept of “we” needs to be taught to the communities that Afrika Tikkun reaches out to. An isolated community will not as readily have a vision of what they can become and how they could contribute and add value.

If the residents of Alexandra township see themselves in isolation to the rest of the city of Johannesburg, they are robbed of the many opportunities that naturally generate from forming connections.

I recently went to a conference at the Harvard Kennedy School of Management, where we analysed economic policies and how they are influenced by the way in which society defines this concept of “we”.

In the “Rainbow Nation” perspective that marked our transition to democracy, the economic policies that flowed - black economic empowerment for example - were sensitive to the haves and the have nots, to the whites as well as to the blacks.

We saw a transfer of wealth taking place through a measured programme rather than simply through nationalisation. All parties’ interests were taken into consideration through a definition of the “we” that saw that “we South Africans” needed to give effect to a redistribution of wealth.

Unfortunately in recent times, we’ve seen rhetoric that defines “we” in far more limiting ways. As a result, we see public discourse and policies that are exclusionary and increase a sense of difference, division and resentment.

At the same conference, evidence was given to demonstrate that countries where immigration was made easy (in particular for people with skills) experienced significant GDP growth. Rwanda with its GDP growth between 7-8 per cent and Australia, good examples of this. Australia’s focus on accepting immigrants with skills is expected to add US$1,2 trillion to its gross domestic product through 2050.

Closer to home, we’re going to lose young Jewish people matriculating from our schools if their definition of “we” excludes the rest of South Africa. It is beholding to us to teach a concept of “we” at Jewish schools that shows how tzedakah and ubuntu have mutual value and greater value when they are co-present.

In this way, those youngsters graduating from schools feel that they have a sense of purpose in contributing towards a society they feel they belong to.

Those who hold a service mentality to mankind understand how much more you get back than what you are able to give. Whether it is knowledge or resources of any kind, you yourself receive in ways that out-measure the gift itself. That sense of empowerment, and the sense of purpose gives you the opportunity to live life joyously.

Through a sincere reflection and re-orientation towards a more inclusive we, we will discover this gift. For what is it to have an all-encompassing sense of belonging within a world darkened by isolation, ignorance and fear, if it is not the calling to be a light to the world. And with the responsibility of the calling to be a light to the nations, comes empowerment.

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