When I saw the report in the Mail & Guardian about the death of Vuyo Mbuli, I could not believe my eyes — he still seemed so young, and life-loving. But then, death does not really discriminate between the young and the old. Still, it was saddening to learn that Vuyo, who has always come across as someone of true magnanimity, someone above and beyond the petty racial prejudice that still characterises so much of social life in South Africa, is no more. I am one of the many who mourn his passing, and will sorely miss his cheerful and intelligent presence on radio and (although I don’t often watch it) television.
What I admired most about Vuyo was the fact that he treated everyone equally as a human being, regardless of race or culture. In fact, he exemplified the kind of person — the kind of South African, to be more precise — whose way of talking and acting made it seem as if there is no reason whatsoever for relations among the different races in South Africa to be fraught with difficulties. I have argued along these lines before on this site although it was in a different context. Vuyo’s charming personality was a reminder to me that the view I expressed there was not over-optimistic or unrealistic — it would have been surprising to witness anyone, even a dyed-in-the-wool racist, maintain an attitude of racial prejudice or antagonism in his company. His openness and even-handedness were enough to disarm even the staunchest bigot.
And why not? After all, people of all races do share a common humanity, something that is easily forgotten under the pressure of dominant conventional discourses or ideologies. This should not be difficult to understand, or accept, considering that Homo and Gyna sapiens, in all their racial and cultural diversity, display the signs of their humanity in many different ways, foremost among them probably being the wide range of cultural artefacts associated with different cultures. As far as this common humanity, regardless of cultural diversity, is concerned, Vuyo was the embodiment of that kind of human being who brings together universal humanity and particular cultural affiliation in one person.
To digress for a moment, it is much more difficult to persuade people of the fact that “having something in common” does not end with other humans, but extends, strictly speaking, to other life-forms as well. The genetic architecture of all living things displays a fundamental similarity, after all, which makes all other living species our distant or near cousins, from trees to dolphins and elephants. This is a good reason to treat other living creatures, too, with respect and consideration, instead of hunting or fishing them to extinction.
Where humans are concerned, there is another reason for emulating Vuyo’s ready acceptance and equal treatment of others (although it did not come without a strong ethical sense of right and wrong, as shown, if memory serves me right, by his tireless public pursuit of justice in the case of policewoman Francis Rasuge, who had disappeared some time before): his singular, welcoming personality stands as a symbol of the unity of all human beings — a unity that is often egregiously undermined by many other people. By “unity” I mean the following: It may come as a surprise to some that all humans on earth today — that is, of every race or culture — have descended from the same ancestors, or more exactly, in all probability from the same ancestor, in the singular. This is how neurologist, evolutionist and philosopher Leonard Shlain puts it (in Sex, Time and Power):
“Though the exact birthdate of our species remains uncertain, the scenario that a single woman birthed the modern human species is on firmer scientific grounds thanks to the reliability of the new science of molecular biology. Laboratory tests performed on mitochondrial DNA can accurately measure the genetic variation that exists between members of a species and the differences existing among species. Scientists can then construct “molecular clocks” and calculate how long ago a particular species split away from its precursor. Molecular biology has proved to be the great Rosetta Stone of evolutionary changes. The existence of an African Eve is extremely likely, because the genetic material of all humans alive today is eerily similar.
“The genes of chimpanzee communities inhabiting ranges only a few thousand yards apart have more genetic diversity than those of humans separated by oceans. Despite the dramatic differences in the skin pigmentation, eye colour, body shapes, and hair types of people from disparate regions of the world, all humans are genetically homogeneous to an extraordinary degree. In fact, there is less than 0.1% difference between the gene structure of any one human and another. This suggests that each of us is a not-so-distant descendant of one fairly recent ancestral female.”
In other words, with the help of advanced molecular science, the unity of all members of the species Homo and Gyna sapiens has been established to a very high degree of probability. I don’t know if Vuyo was explicitly aware of this, but he certainly was intuitively aware of it, judging by the fact that he did not discriminate between people of different cultures or races in his treatment of them. Judging by his way of relating to people, he regarded them all as family. In this, he was a shining example to us all. Would that his legacy to South Africans (and people of other countries, too) could turn out to be greater mutual sensitivity to, and acceptance of our fellow human beings — this would be an appropriate manner to honour the life work of this exceptional human being.