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Why the phrase 'the Common Good' made me wince

By Lynda Tilley, a founding member of United African Humanists and a member of the Advisory Board for Humanist Global Charity, California.  Lynda is based in Durban, South Africa.

In this article, Lynda tells the story of the 2021 South African unrest, also known as the Zuma riots - a wave of civil unrest which occurred in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces in July 2021, sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court.

Growing up in Zimbabwe (then called Southern Rhodesia), I was raised as a Christian, attended Sunday school, and educated in a school run on religious principles during the week. We were taught about 'good' and 'evil'. All Christians were considered to be 'good', and therefore everybody should be one. If you weren't a Christian, it meant that you didn't follow God's word, which made you the very opposite of 'good'. You were a 'sinner.'

'God is good!', 'Good people go to heaven', 'The good word', 'Always do good' - the word 'good' always seemed to lead back to God and good Christians were expected to spread God's word to others less fortunate, and to help those sinners to come to know God. This was the only meaning of 'The Common Good' we knew about. It meant doing good work not only for the benefit of those close to you, but others as well, in larger numbers, and this made you closer to God, and the GREAT work he did. As mere mortals we were good, but God was GREAT! I didn't happen to think that he was as great as he was made out to be, but I kept my mouth shut about it most of the time, else I'd be put on a guilt trip and have to pray and learn more Bible verses, which I hated. So, ‘The Common Good' was something I associated with God.

"Even today, I wince when I hear the phrase 'The Common Good' and I immediately think of missionaries dishing out food parcels and Bibles to those in poor communities, or large groups of people running soup kitchens all over the city. Bowls of soup, followed by prayers."


So, I had to put all of my ingrained thoughts about 'The Common Good' to one side for this article, and think about what this phrase conjures up for me today. After thinking for a while, I can explain it like this: 'Doing more to help people who fall outside your family or community and covering larger areas and therefore making life better for larger numbers of people. Doing more to help humanity as a whole'. Relating this to our African ways today, this pretty much comes down to what the world now knows as 'Ubuntu', a word which was made popular by Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. He came out preaching 'Peace, unity, forgiveness and Ubuntu'. Ubuntu means 'a person is a person through other human beings'. It means we should all work together for the benefit, not just of ourselves, but for all people, even those who have wronged us, or who are different from us, including people we don't even know, because everyone ends up benefitting in the long run. It's summed up in the second part of Humanists UK's slogan: 'Think for Yourself, Act for Everyone' as written about by Richard Norman in his article for Humanistically Speaking this month.

I would say, then, that as Africans, most of us (non-religious or religious) do practice what I consider to be 'the Common Good' or 'Ubuntu' in our everyday lives - or a form of it, at least. Not always and not everyone and not consistently, but there is definitely a form of this being done everywhere, if you look for it. I saw this unfolding last year in South Africa, where I currently live, during the 5-day July riots which brought the country to a grinding halt. The city I live in, in Kwa Zulu Natal, was completely destroyed, stripped of everything it had, and cut off from the outside world. The airport, toll gates into the city, freeways, and harbour/port were all blockaded and there was no way in or out. There was no food in the shops, and food factories, food storage warehouses, banks and petrol stations were either not functioning or were entirely destroyed. Even if there was food available to buy, you couldn't buy any because all credit card and ATM machines had been destroyed and many online banking services were down. Then, when the chips were down, it didn't matter how wealthy or poor you were. Whether you were a doctor or a homeless person, we were all suddenly equal, in what felt like a split second. Equal, and in a terrible situation and experiencing exactly what everyone else was, at that exact moment. We were all in the same boat, just battling to keep afloat. And in order to stay afloat, we had to work together.

It was the one time I actually saw the 'Ubuntu' and 'Rainbow Nation' image created for South Africa truly in action. Everyone helped everyone else and, for a few days, racism and xenophobia fell away as people of all colours, genders and ages, and both citizens and non-citizens, all worked side by side. The staunchly religious homophobes worked alongside the LGBT community, a CEO swept the street together with a beggar, and the young took care of the elderly. All of these people, usually separated because of personal beliefs, status or bias, were working together in unity, cleaning up the mess together, securing looted shops and businesses, sharing food, and protecting each other's neighbourhoods. Slowly, we saw an even bigger version of 'The Greater Good' in action, as help started coming in from provinces across South Africa. Truckloads of essential items started arriving from everywhere, and wealthy residents in other cities who had access to private aircraft started flying emergency supplies into private airstrips, dropping them off and turning around to collect the next load. The first shipment of food to arrive by road included flour, rice and bread, and was driven down from Johannesburg (a journey which takes a couple of days in a large truck) by members of the Muslim community. Announcements across social media informed us that the bread was available 'for all religions, not just our community, all are welcome'. I even saw a few comments on Facebook along the lines of 'Even the atheists are cleaning up and working with us!' to which one atheist replied 'Well, we're always helping, you just don't know about it because we don't broadcast it all over social media, like you all do!'

It was heart-warming and comforting to be a witness to all this and to play a small part in it. It did give me hope for humanity, that when we're at our lowest and most vulnerable we do, truly, all pull together for 'the Common Good'. It's just a pity that it takes a disaster to see this in action, and a pity that many of us don't continue after the immediate crisis is over. But it's a start, at least.

Humanism in action

I think what this also showed a lot of people, whether they knew the word or not, was 'humanism in action' and how we as humanists live our lives. We don't wait for a god to save us because we know that only we can save ourselves and each other from bad situations. We are responsible for our own actions, or lack of action, and we can help others regardless of whether we have the money or resources to do it. Everyone has something to offer, because helping is also about non-monetary things like support or just being present, physical labour or a hug or just an ear to listen, or a smile to a stranger. All of these things can be done by and for people regardless of age, gender, status, race, country, religion or lack of it, because at the end of the day we are all members of the same species.

'Ubuntu', 'the Common Good', 'kindness' or 'humanism' - whatever we call it, it's pretty much the same thing at the end of the day. It's the language spoken by humanists all around the world. We all know it, we have always known it, and we haven't had to be taught how or why we should do it. It is what will, one day in the future, unite us as one global family of humans, ensuring that, as a species, homo sapiens will never become extinct.

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