Ubuntu: Together as one

A divine spark to do good

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Ubuntu: “I am because you are”
Nelson Mandela’s heart was like no other. His entire legacy is built upon forgiveness and humanism. Mandela dedicated his life towards fighting for the freedom of all South Africans. As we celebrate Mandela Day, we pay tribute to his legacy and commemorate all the good work he did, instilling a philosophy relatable not just to South Africa but to the rest of the world—the Spirit of Ubuntu.

Man is defined and characterised by many measures. One of the many philosophies Nelson Mandela is known for placing value on is the Nguni Bantu concept “Ubuntu”, which symbolises openheartedness. Mandela’s passion for what is considered one of Africa’s most profound world views remains permanently etched in us. He spent twenty-seven years in prison, being systematically tortured, oppressed, restricted, racially segregated and separated from his family. He encountered the detrimental negative results that came with the Apartheid government. Yet, he still believed in Ubuntu, an ideology used in a philosophical sense, to say we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye.

He believed forgiveness was not optional but necessary. The Spirit of Ubuntu was so deeply rooted in him that when he was elected President of South Africa in 1994, he spent years practising what he preached. In his quest for a new, democratic South Africa and for the peaceful termination of the Apartheid regime, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He led without bitterness, focusing on bringing peace and reconciliation, instilling procedures and policies that would unify South Africa.

In one of his speeches, he said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” and these words reflect the tremendous power of Ubuntu.

Where was this philosophy derived from? It dates back as far as the mid-19th century; very few people know that the word Ubuntu is a term that was taken from Zimbabwe. In the Shona language, it is referred to as “Hunhuism”. This indigenous political philosophy was initially presented for the new Zimbabwe after Southern Rhodesia was granted independence from the United Kingdom. From Zimbabwe, the concept was taken over to South Africa in the 1990s as a guiding ideal for the transition from the Apartheid government to majority rule. In a world ravaged by fundamentalist intolerance, social distress, economic inequalities and military conflict, humanity urgently needed a unifying concept. This is what birthed the Spirit of Ubuntu, and Nelson Mandela stressed the importance of Ubuntu in his speeches about reconciliation.

It has since become a world view of African societies and is widely considered Africa’s most abiding principle. There are various interpretations of Ubuntu but the most consistent features it encompasses are its leadership philosophies. They emphasise the collectivism and formulation of genuine and lasting relationships that precede material things.

The post-colonial era seeded many new ideologies, but one of the greatest things Africans learnt from imperialism and colonialism is how to survive through brotherly care, not self-reliance. Those who are strong help others—communal action to alleviate human suffering. Ubuntu says all our actions have an impact on others and on society, it is the essence of being human, focusing on the fact that you can’t exist as a human in isolation. We are interconnected, therefore, your actions as an individual affect the whole world.

Ubuntu is the human experience of treating people with respect and possessing a spirit of solidarity and compassion, practising non-racial segregation and treating all humans equally, and aiming to be an individual who values brotherhood and sharing. The way you approach life should endorse a spirit of community, society, harmony, hospitality, respect and responsiveness towards one another.

There are many ways people can show Ubuntu, including:

  • The way you talk—being positive and uttering kind words.
  • The way you smile—it should be friendly, natural and hearty.
  • The way you greet should be friendly, enquiring about one’s well being
  • The way you practice moral values.

What this means is that we act out of compassion, based on an understanding of our common human condition. My being and your being are the creation of our collective being, proving that each one of us owes our existence to another. In leadership positions, Ubuntu can be a strong foundation upon which to build business thinking, serving as a compass of moral ethics.

Another person who strongly values and stresses Ubuntu through his theology is Archbishop Emeritus Bishop Mpilo Tutu, who is well-known for invoking Ubuntu ethics to evaluate South African society. Credit should be given to him for familiarising politicians, scholars and activists around the world with the term. He believes that when dealing with wrongdoers and victims, there is no justification for an eye for an eye. According to him, South Africa was correct in dealing with the Apartheid era and politics by seeking restorative justice. Tutu feels Apartheid did not only prevent races from identifying with each other, but it also inhibited solidarity with one another. He believes Apartheid made people less human. They failed to share power, wealth, land and opportunities with each other.

One of his most prominent claims is that Apartheid damaged not only black people but also white people. Despite it resulting in most white people becoming well off, they were morally corrupted and not as good as they could be as human beings. For Tutu, reconciliation meant wrongdoers and those who benefitted should acknowledge their wrongdoing and seek to repair the damage that they did. In his words: “Unless there is real material transformation in the lives of those who have been Apartheid victims, we might as well kiss reconciliation goodbye. It won’t just happen without some reparation.”

Tutu’s idea of humanness, harmony and reconciliation stresses his rejection of the western idea that what is valuable about us as humans is our autonomy. “We are different so that we can know our need of one another, for no one is ultimately self-sufficient. The completely self-sufficient person would be sub-human,” he said.

Ubuntu was one of the major philosophies that were used in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) framework. Mandela’s new democratically-elected government wanted to create a course of action that would serve as an example to the rest of the world. Legally, the TRC was based on the National Unity and Reconciliation Act (NURA) of 1995. The passage from the 1993 Interim Constitution Act states: “The adoption of this Constitution lays the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge. These can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not for victimisation.”

The intention of the new democratic government was clear; Mandela’s objective was to make provision for restorative justice, instead of punitive justice, to unify South Africa. Tutu shared the same sentiments. All this is evidence that Ubuntu was at the heart of South Africa at its most sensitive time. The new Constitution and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were the measures put in place to restore the country. The TRC’s main task was to unearth what the Apartheid government had done using its three main structures: the Human Rights Violations Committee, the Amnesty Committee and the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee.

The positive connotations surrounding Ubuntu show us the extent to which it was really a need for South Africa in order to secure understanding and reparation. National unity is the most important principle that secures a successful government.

As we celebrate Mandela Day, we need to reflect and celebrate the legacy he left, a legacy of doing good when no one is looking, a spirit of consideration, humanness, brotherhood and respect. 

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