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The sense that we have lost our way as a nation is inescapable for anyone who reads the news.

Xenophobic violence has flared up. Each day brings horrifying accounts of violence against women and children, and corruption and deprivation are pervasive. Instead of falling prey to pessimism, we should ask why we have arrived here and what we can do to turn it around.

Our country’s malaise can be attributed to our troubled history, which deprived the majority of education and economic opportunity for centuries. Perhaps even more devastating than the bitter economic fruits of the apartheid and colonial years is the way that these systems of oppression tore families apart, and alienated millions of people from their cultural heritage.

In short, we have lost the spirit of ubuntu that defines African societies and nations at their best.

Economic populism and narrow nationalism are put forward as easy solutions to the challenges we face. The true meaning and purpose of customs such as lobola are lost in favour of reactionary, patriarchal interpretations; the wisdom of those that came before us is forgotten. But there is a way to reconnect with the past while building a better future.

It comes from embracing the age-old principles of ubuntu, which reflect human wisdom and experiences in most societies. Ubuntu is the belief that we are people through and because of our relationships with other humans and with our natural world. It is a system that promotes harmony between human beings.

When we recognise ourselves in other people, we will not wrong or harm them because it will also violate our sense of self. This is a lesson we have forgotten amid the scramble to survive for some, and in the frenzy to consume and to keep up with the Joneses among others. Now is the time to step back and acknowledge that we are only harming ourselves when we do not recognise the struggles and needs of those around us.

How do we change this picture? It is an exercise of changing how things are done in the workplace, of confronting politicians and institutions that fail the country’s people. Opportunistic rent-seekers and public servants who exploit the system by redirecting funds away from catalytic programmes designed to stimulate inclusive economic activity must be held accountable.

In place of these institutions, we should be looking at how we can build community-driven alternatives. Our communities have so much value - but we often don’t see just how rich they could become.

With a sense of ubuntu, we could start to build businesses that not only serve our communities, but also give back to them. There is so much collective wealth to be built by promoting mutually beneficial savings, insurance, manufacturing, retail and other goods and services as alternatives to extractive enterprises.

Each person should ask whether they are fulfilling their part in the ubuntu project. Are they fostering behaviours that enhance social harmony? If each of us takes some small steps in the right direction, this will add up to a giant leap for our country.

Ntsikelelo Mzibomvu the founder of 8een Concepts and Luvuyo Madasa is the executive director at ReimagineSA.

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