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29 June 2021 | Story Dr Mpumelelo Ncube | Photo Quinter Onyango
Dr Mpumelelo Ncube is the Academic Head and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Work at the University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Dr Mpumelelo Ncube, Academic Head and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Work, University of the Free State  

Sometimes one struggles with the concept of “societal progress” and its meaning. It loosely refers to “an advancement of major conditions of societies and people’s lives in a direction considered to be desirable based on prevailing values and goals of development”. The trouble stems from various social actions that are occasionally touted as progressive when, on closer examination, such can easily be rebuffed as retrogressive. The situation then raises further questions on what the yardstick for measuring social progress is and whether such a standard of measurement exists. If it does, one wonders on its pertinence in measuring the direction of the society’s movement on whether it’s a progressive or retrogressive activity. One often reaches a conclusion that, if social progress is measurable then there certainly isn’t just a single way to measure the same for different communities as each community has its unique values, conditions and aspirations.

Imported cultures and belief systems

Historically, different peoples from closed communities had their set ways of life in the form of strong traditions, tighter norms, ethos and morals that characterised their societies and defined their identities. On the other hand, the intersectionality of colonisation, imperialism, globalisation, neoliberalism and libertarianism has loosened and continues to slacken these societal characteristics to the detriment of the communities that were once close knit with a unified set of values and belief systems. Over the years, close communities have opened the floodgates of imported traditions and lifestyles that, undoubtedly, have introduced some positive changes to local ways of living. This unfettered consumption of these imported cultures and belief systems has alienated local communities. Observably, indigenous communities have largely abandoned their own values, beliefs and identities and concomitantly paved way for the hegemony of foreign, mainly European and North American value systems. The long-term ramifications of this system are dire as already experienced by many African indigenous communities that have inadvertently been stripped of dignity and capacity to achieve their full potential. The essence of this situation is aptly captured by Noam Chomsky when he argues that: “As long as the general population is passive, diverted to consumerism… then the powerful can do as they please and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.”

Under normal circumstances, what one values and believes in should be couched in a deep understanding of what it is that they value and believe in. Come to think of some of the things that African communities used to value and believe in. A case in point being the high regard they gave to Ubuntu as a philosophical underpinning of their close-knit communities, “I am because we are”. It is a value based on the strength of oneness for societal and individual progression. Younger generations were encultured to understand this value and consequently embrace it as a way of life and for existential purposes. This brought about societal stability and the ability to curb most socio-economic ills. Life as we have it today has drifted away from this value base in favour of individualism, an antithesis of Ubuntu. The embracement of individualism as a way of life has hugely destabilised African societies, thus, unleashing a lot of untold suffering that could otherwise have been easily warded off through collectivism. Consequently, greed and corruption have become the hallmark of modern-day life. Should this be viewed as progression or retrogression? Is it even sustainable or just a self-destructive behaviour that threatens the very existence of humanity?

Gender equality in marriages

Recently, the Department of Home Affairs released a Green Paper on Marriages for public comments. One of its proposals as advocated for by some gender activists is for the legalisation of polyandry as a way of addressing the question of gender equality in marriages. Should it be an issue of gender equality at any cost or should there be more circumspection on how it is attained? Perhaps the starting point could be an assessment of the quality of lives of those involved in polygamous marriages. It is a practice that appears to favour men, yet, qualitatively, most men in these marriages have long witnessed the so-called favour turn into inescapable generational curses. Some would say, for any intended action, always begin with the end in mind. While gender equality in marriages is what is envisaged through this proposal, the truth of the matter is that the proposal is an invitation for further victimisation of women in the hands of multiple legally recognised marriage partners. The proposal also comes at a time when gender-based violence is on an upward trajectory. As things stand, efforts to eliminate GBV in monogamous marriages are worryingly falling short. Instead of advocating for polyandry, now could be the time to harness all energies towards peaceful coexistence of men and women in their monogamous marriages. It could be the time to strengthen the institution of marriage to be a place where children could be brought up with the love of both parents without any need for multiple marriage partners for either gender. Should this be what we aspire for?

On another note, the older generations, especially from cultural and religious circles used to value chastity, a condition of spiritual purity resulting from abstinence from any form of sexual intercourse pre- and outside marriage. The value was driven by the reverence of the Creator and an understanding that, beyond the soul, one’s body also hosts the Holy Spirit that enhances the quality of the soul. An enhanced quality of the soul enriches the quality of the body in which it resides but a soul devoid of the Holy Spirit leads to numerous physical ailments of the body. Without this deep understanding, chastity as a value has lost its currency in favour of what is usually misconstrued as free will and being free-spirited. 

As a result of lack of knowledge and understanding some governments even legislate this kind of life. The result is alienation of individuals and societies from the Creator as the source of life leading to a myriad of social ills. Once again, should this be understood as societal progression or backsliding?

Pleasure before procreation

The gravity of sexual intercourse was buttressed by an understanding and knowledge that it is a natural way of procreation that incidentally brings joy to the concerned married couple. In other words, although pleasure is important in sexual intercourse, it is incidental to the cause as procreation is the original reason thereof. This has since been inverted to put sexual pleasure before procreation leading to a plethora of social problems including, unwanted pregnancies, an escalation of children born out of wedlock and fathers whose whereabouts are unknown and a rise in sexually transmitted illnesses. Unfortunately, this has become the “new normal” such that being a virgin at the age of 25 is an embarrassment when it was once held in high esteem by many in Africa and beyond. Legalisation of abortion at will is such a sign of lack of understanding of its spiritual implications. Attempts to explain the spiritual implications are easily scoffed at as scientifically unproven and unsound. Some would say: “If you can’t prove it scientifically, it therefore doesn’t exist”. In this way, a false dichotomy between science and spirituality is created. On the other hand, when spiritual problems manifest, no science can quell them. Overlooking these implications results in a vicious cycle of social ills that lamentably strains the health care and social welfare systems. This is a discussion that needs to be had but for now, the simple antidote to the proliferation of most of these social problems is moral regeneration, moving back to the centre and reconnecting with what defined the people in their given communities and seek to understand why certain beliefs and practices formed the value base of their communities. 

While this will not be a panacea, it would, in fact, be the beginning of turning the tide of moral degeneration that has engulfed many of our communities. However, it isn’t an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. It would take those who still know and understand the values, belief systems, norms and ethos of their communities to, individually and collectively, seek to reproduce more of their kind. It would mean making deliberate choices of upholding and advocating for those progressive traditions, values and belief systems that once defined them as a people but due to ignorance, have since been pushed to obscurity. Never has the need for moral regeneration been greater than it is now in the face of misguided sense of social progression.

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