Ubuntu is about relationships


The concept of ubuntu is complex, and is difficult to nail down. There is some consensus though, that it relates to how one operates in the world on a moral and humanitarian level. Practised with the good of all in mind, it can help individuals and the community.

For many, ubuntu is defined as “a person is a person through other people”. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Shamin Chibba

Live with ubuntu – the plea has been made by leaders across political, religious and social lines as a means of marking Heritage Month this year.

The month is held each September, with Heritage Day, a national public holiday, celebrated on 24 September. It has become something of a tradition for South Africans to have a braai on this day, and most museums and memorials offer free entry.

This year, ubuntu is the focal point. The president of the ANC Veteran’s League, Sandi Sijake, wants all South Africans to restore ubuntu in society; and Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba has asked that we begin the month with ubuntu instead of a braai. It is an inspiring call in a country riven by division, but it is difficult to answer when people are so odds as to what the term really means.

Goodness Ncube, a shoe salesman in Killarney, Johannesburg, defines ubuntu are the ability to relate to each other. Tabitha Mahaka, a Zimbabwean expatriate, believes it is about feeling at home in a foreign country. And Ismail Bennet, a store manager, has not even heard of the term.

For many, ubuntu is defined as “a person is a person through other people”. Originally a South African concept, it became globally recognised after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu referred to it during his anti-apartheid campaign in the 1980s. In 2008, he explained that ubuntu was the essence of being human, meaning that a person could not exist in isolation. “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.”

According to Wits University associate lecturer in philosophy, Jason van Niekerk, there is more to ubuntu than its oft-repeated phrase or Tutu’s musings. Though the word is derived from the Nguni languages of Xhosa and Zulu, the philosophy is not exclusive to these two cultures. Instead, it encapsulates numerous sets of values that have their roots in various African cultures. Van Niekerk explains that ubuntu is better defined as the nurturing of relationships with other people. “Ubuntu is a feature we take on by interacting with others like ourselves. It is about showing empathy and putting effort into building relationships.”

Van Niekerk, who recently completed his doctoral thesis on ubuntu, says philosophies that come directly from small-knit societies are focused on communities and why they matter, unlike Western philosophy, which is concerned with the individual’s place in the world. Most cultures in Africa emphasise a number of moral duties, including safeguarding tradition so as to maintain a connection to community, refraining from being too competitive so as not to harm relationships, and the obligation to marry and have children. “These are a set of claims, characteristic in many African cultures, which are bundled up into ubuntu.”

Van Niekerk’s enquiry into ubuntu came out of a personal need to connect with the world. While in high school, he fell ill and was bedridden for months. When he returned to school, he felt isolated and had to relearn how to interact with people. And then, during his years as a student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, he learned the significance of community. “There is something damaging and valuable [about] being isolated. People do not know how valuable and rich relationships with each other are.”


Though it is widely accepted that ubuntu originated in South Africa, it is unclear when the philosophy was first recorded. According to associate professor Christian BN Gade at Aarhus University in Denmark, some suggest the word was brought to public attention by novelist Jordan Kush Ngubane, whose writings on the subject appeared in The African Drum magazine and in his novels, which were published between the 1950s and 1970s. In Conflicts of Minds, Ngubane defined ubuntu as “the philosophy which the African experience translates into action”.

Professor Gabriel Setiloane once thought the term was first used at the South African Institute for Race Relations conference in Durban in 1960. However, during his research, Gade discovered 31 texts published before 1950 that used the word, the earliest of which is I-Testamente Entsha by HH Hare. Published in 1846, the word “ubuntu” appears four times in the book. Today, the document can be found in the New York Public Library.

But Van Niekerk points out that most African philosophy has been passed down orally, implying that the concept of ubuntu existed long before the word was written down.

Beyond human relations

Motlatsi Khosi, a lecturer in African philosophy and ubuntu at the University of South Africa, says ubuntu’s focus on relationships goes beyond those that are between humans. It also relates to the way people interact with both the natural and metaphysical worlds, the latter consisting of unseen elements such as ancestors and God. “Present day ubuntu takes away metaphysical aspects. It should be about how to make sense of the connection with the universe, animals, nature and humans.”

Khosi explains that ubuntu structures every living being in a hierarchy and allocates particular responsibilities to each of them. Only once they undergo a rite of passage will their roles change. For instance, a boy may initially take on a minor role within his family but after undergoing an initiation into manhood, he will be obliged to marry and have children, and provide for them.

Her exploration of ubuntu stems from her experiences as an adolescent who floated between two different worlds – one as a city girl who lived in a Johannesburg suburb and attended a private school, and the other as a child who shared a close bond with her extended family from the township of Sharpeville. “From a young age you have to act in a certain way to access these different spaces. If you are not playing the game, your humanity can be taken away from you.”

Intentionally vague

All attempts to define ubuntu have only made the philosophy more unclear. When referring to ubuntu, Van Niekerk says most people would quote Tutu. However, the archbishop had simply bundled together a number of African values. “There are many definitions and it is a term used to bring out a set of values that are incorporated with one another.”

Through his research on ubuntu, Van Niekerk hopes to get rid of the haziness associated with the word and provide a clear definition for it. It is intentionally made vague in public discussions, he believes, and as a result it has been loosely used to describe any African philosophy or values. He refers to an incident in which the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) used the term irresponsibly. “Dirco put out a white paper saying that ubuntu was the driving feature behind its foreign policy. But they could not define ubuntu themselves so they withdrew the paper.”

Khosi points out that some philosophers use this lack of clarity to discredit ubuntu. Others, she claims, recognise similarities between ubuntu and Western philosophy and conclude that the former is not needed if the values already exist in another philosophy.

Van Niekerk echoed her sentiments, saying that in philosophical circles, there is a move towards making it a part of a philosophy everyone recognises. Yet Khosi feels that finding a definition for ubuntu should not be a philosopher’s purpose and they should instead concentrate on the values it entails. “We should stop focusing on the name and look at the philosophies as they are actually actions dealing with humans.”

Are South Africans practising ubuntu?

For most of the time Khosi studied ubuntu, she sought the answer to whether South Africans were practising it or not. For her, it does exist, but only in places where it is most needed, such as in settlements and poor rural areas where people are tired of being treated as commodities.

She speaks of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers’ movement that aims to improve living conditions for the poor, as an example of where ubuntu is thriving. Established in Durban in 2005, the organisation has grown to tens of thousands of supporters from over 30 urban settlements across the country. Through this movement, the ideas and voices of the poor are taken seriously. “These people are living in horrible conditions. Their houses are constantly taken away. But through Abahlali, they are reclaiming their humanity.”

This ties in with her claim that ubuntu is not merely an idea but an action as well. She adds that ubuntu is at play when we approach a person and ask ourselves how we can act in a way that will increase their humanity and in turn our humanity too.

Mahaka holds that many South Africans are ignorant of ubuntu, driven by a fear of the unknown. “We fear other cultures and other religions. But when you get to know somebody you realise we are all the same.” The way one can learn about it, she adds, is by visiting the homes of work colleagues and seeing how they live. Mahaka recently visited a co-worker at her home in Diepsloot for Sunday lunch and admitted that all her preconceived notions of the township were shattered. “There are lots of shacks and people, but this was her home, and it was beautiful.”

Ncube says that ubuntu in South Africa is not where it should be but there is potential to make it work for us. “We are not where we need to be, but we are trying.”

Bashier Percuis, a resident from Eldorado Park in Johannesburg, says people in his community lack ubuntu as they live for themselves. “They do not care for one another. If we communicate and neighbours talk to one another about the problems in our area then we can come to a solution.”

Bennet, originally from Cape Town, adds that he cannot believe in a philosophy that states a person is a product of his or her community; he is his own self-made person. Each decision he makes is done for his own good and is not influenced by community. “Whatever decision I make is not because of other people but because I made the decision myself.”

For Van Niekerk, the answer to whether South Africans practise ubuntu or not is ambivalent. Though few people uphold it, most do not have the moral ideals to practise it. He also implies that the philosophy can be manipulated to achieve a community’s aims.

Philosopher and clinical psychologist Dirk Louw referred to the 2008 xenophobic attacks in his study titled Power Sharing and the Challenge of Ubuntu Ethics as an example of where ubuntu was warped to target a certain group of people. He stated that the overvaluing of community can lead to hurting others in the name of community. He also noted that ubuntu could degenerate into “totalitarian communalism”, which could also be understood as a tendency to isolate and exclude a certain group of people. He added that when ubuntu was derailed, it could fortify an identity through limitation and segregation.

Ubuntu and globalisation

One of the reasons ubuntu is taken seriously today is because it conflicts with globalisation and capitalism, says Khosi. This economic system de-humanises people as it forces us to judge others by their money and education. “Ubuntu is here but it is fighting against very powerful forces that keep people poor and de-humanise them.”

Having visited Abahlali baseMjondolo, Khosi realised that there is a form of knowledge that exists outside of academia, which has to be taken seriously. Its source can be found in informal settlements, among the poor whose experiences are just as valuable as those of any academic. “Ubuntu is an everyday struggle. It is a reaction to the dehumanising world of individualism, materialism and isolation.”

But contrary to what Khosi believes, globalisation could work in favour of ubuntu, especially when taking pan-Africanism into consideration. The idea is to unite Africans on the continent and those of the diaspora and eliminate any remnants of colonialism and oppression experienced in the past.

About ubuntu’s role in pan-Africanism, author Mfuniselwa John Bhengu says that unity can only be achieved through internalising and infusing the philosophy in all pan-African processes. The provision of ubuntu within the context of pan-African world views will help to drive the African renaissance on the continent and in the diaspora. “Ubuntu provides Africans with a sense of self-identity, self-respect, dignity, unity and achievement. It enables Africans to deal with their problems in a positive manner by drawing on the humanistic values they have inherited and perpetuated throughout their history.”

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