Being a single woman, an old single woman, I was invited to be on a programme to examine the phenomenon of the single woman. In order to clarify my thinking on this matter, I put together the following in which I consider only women who have never married and do not have children.

The ubuntu dictum, 'A person is a person through other people,' is something I accept totally. I believe that each of us is in a continuous process of becoming through all our interactions in life in every environment and every moment in which we live. That makes it impossible to pinpoint the choices that we make in developing our identities. There is no one significant event or moment in time that can account for a woman's choice to be single. It is rather an accumulation of happenings acquired through the processes of interaction.

According to Richard Dawkins, culture is the result of a process of natural selection that is transmitted through memes, units of cultural inheritance, replicators like genes. It seems to me that personality can also be described as the result of a process of natural selection through the transmission of genes, replicators of human traits that determine how each individual makes choices about the kind of person s/he will be from what s/he perceives through others. If as a baby, your aunts regard you as the ugliest child that ever was and you grow up in a racist society, you are being made aware that you are other. If that turns you into an observer rather than a participant, you become an outsider and a head person rather than a heart person. You grow up with a sense of being alien, and you marvel at other people's ability to lose themselves in all kinds of fervour - emotional, religious, social, political. And you wonder why they do not reserve judgment; what makes them capable of blind faith? Why do you remain a particle in the wave of humanity?

I believe it is the perception of your otherness. And it affects you in one of two ways: it either releases you to become yourself or it locks you in a yearning for conformity, ubuntu in the narrow sense.

1. If you are locked in yearning, you become a victim and assume the stereotype of the spinster, the old maid, the witch and you feel inferior, resentful and vengeful. You are taught to despise yourself when you see today's witches in today's fairy tales, soap operas. Powerful women in soap operas are often single and portrayed as vindictive, manipulative and hateful. These portrayals are based on the old notion that independent women are unnatural. Such perceptions persist and in some cultures single women are still considered evil practitioners of black magic, and are actively reviled and persecuted. Where single women conform to social norms in every other way, they are pitied or tolerated but remain marginalised. Despite the fact that single women are usually independent workingwomen, people generally think of them as not having responsibilities. Those who still believe that only primal relationships define women deny them their full status as human beings. Despite women's liberation and gender equity, many do not see single women as explorers who are widening our understanding of human freedom.

2. Those single women who see that their otherness gives them independence because people's expectations of them are different, become aware that they have greater choice and they follow their interests. Of course there are pressures on them to conform but once they sail through Tennyson's arch of experience, 'wherethrough /Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move,' they do not look back. They choose to ally themselves with the Ulysses' of today, who are pushing out the limits of our understanding and making greater freedoms possible within ubuntu, within human society.

Ubuntu means two basic things to me: relationship and accountability. Because you become the person you are, through other people, you are accountable to every other person on the planet as your humanity depends on human community and in your smallest interactions, you create the ethos of the society in which you live. We tend to fear people who push out the boundaries of freedom as irresponsible, but they are not. They are aware that they are accountable to the rest of society. They do not differentiate between relationship and accountability and their striving for greater freedom is a striving for greater freedom for all other human beings. Single women are among these pioneers.

People with a narrow understanding of ubuntu see relationships and accountability only within their own communities, within their own religious group, their own ethnic group, their own racial group and tend to be racist, xenophobic, homophobic and intolerant of single, independent women, the worst threat to their understanding of community. Such women seem to defy the fundamental tenet of ubuntu, relationship, because they have bypassed the primal level of wife and mother. In societies in which ubuntu does not extend to the whole of humankind, women often live under the most oppressive conditions; oppression that stunts more than the growth of the oppressed group, it stunts the growth of the entire community.

A human being is a part of the whole called 'the universe,' a part

limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts

and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical

delusion of ... consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for

us, restricting us to our personal desires, and to affection for a few

persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this

prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living

creatures\and the whole of nature in all its beauty. Nobody is able

to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is

in itself part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

(Albert Einstein)

When we begin to understand ubuntu as Einstein expresses it above, we begin to recognise more and more of our fears of difference as prejudice and laws that have become too rigid to accommodate difference, are changed to allow us greater freedom in relationships. Societies that foster the independence of women are societies evolving towards an understanding of ubuntu in its widest sense - universal brotherandsisterhood and accountability to every human being in the world regardless of all differences, including gender.

Single women who understand the ubuntu principle in a wider sense, accept its inherent requirement of accountability. They are among all those who challenge various forms of prevailing prejudices. In pushing back boundaries and increasing the freedom of the individual, they do not repudiate relationship but are widening our understanding of what it means to be human. It is like being an astronaut, floating free beyond the thermosphere and still having contact with NASA.

Muthal Naidoo

30 July 2008