Ubuntu: an African worldview

We are a country rich in culture, and although that implies diversity, it also implies unity in some of the values that have structured our society over time. Some of my most favourite expressions of these values are found in well-loved African Proverbs, such as:

  1. It takes a village to raise a child
  2. To get lost is to learn the way
  3. A patient man will eat ripe fruit

Another precious jewel in the crown of our shared consciousness is the value of Ubuntu. Originally a Nguni word which has no direct translation into English, but is used to describe a uniquely African worldview in which people can only find fulfilment through interacting with other people. According to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu Ubuntu is to say ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours….’ The word speaks to our interconnectedness and the responsibility to each other that flows from our connection, it defines a perspective that holds as its core belief: I am what I am because of who we all are.
Even though 2013 has only just started, and we are all still reeling from the tragedy of Marikana, 2013 has already kicked off with more violence in the farm workers strikes, and most recently Zamdela. Although possibly incidents diverse in their source of origin and their main points of concern, they are nonetheless all incidents related in their humanity, in their violence, in the tragedy of it all.
Of course these stories have depth and variety of impact. We are not exploring all of that here. This newsletter is not a political analysis of these events; it is not about the right to strike or the socio economic drivers or political power plays behind these events. Let’s see it rather as a humanitarian analysis, not of the state of our nation but of the state of our hearts. Like so many saying and traditions, Ubuntu has over time diminished in its capacity to guide us on how to “do life” together in South Africa. What we’ve possibly failed to notices is that in as much as the principle of Ubuntu has the capacity to be positive, the truth of this principle – our interconnectedness – also plays out in the barrage of negative situations that we as South Africans are faced with. It means that these violent outbreaks say something about all of us, and about the disintegration of the fabric that makes us truly African. It means that the ripple effect of these tragedies have far reaching consequences to our daily lives and the future of this country.
What are the intrinsic values that characterise Ubuntu?

  • Accountability – in the context of community, it is our answerability to one another, aiming to improve the internal standard of individual as well as group conduct. When we understand that our actions affect others, we understand the importance of accountability. Reintroducing this in our homes, businesses and communities will reignite Ubuntu and reap internal and external benefits.
  • Communication – Just because we are talking doesn’t mean we are communicating, and a breakdown in communication has been sighted as a valid starting point for so much of what we’ve seen in the news lately, from E-Toll dramas to Zamdela. In Zamdela they might have had valid concerns, but no guidance as to how to bring these to light and no assurances that they will be heard. Like a mom who only get her kids to listen when she shouts at them and kids only being willing to “listen” when they are shouted at the parties squared off, with no positive outcome ensured for either.
  • Respect – regarding the life of others with the same esteem as your own, placing a high premium on dignity, compassion, humanness and the humanity of others. Surely when we view others in this way, we will find middle ground in our shared concern for the wellbeing of those around us instead of fixating on our differences. Then we will in each relationship favour restorative rather than retributive actions.

Surely a re-embracing of these can serve us better as a mechanism by which we view one another, negotiate clashes of interest, and invest in one another and in our community? Truly Ubuntu is a philosophy that wholly supports the changes that we all desire and that we all wish to see in our country. Let me close with another African Proverb, encouraging us to embrace once again the value of Ubuntu.

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. ~ African proverb

Newsletter written by Kona Brown