Why Africa and the World needs to Re-Discover the Philosophy of Ubuntu!

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30 July 2013 - 10:56am -- charles

“We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in the field of human relationship. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift is still to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face”. 

Steve Biko, political activist and author, 1970

There is a pressing need for Africa and the world to move toward a more sustainable way of life socially, environmentally, economically, and politically. This can be achieved through a more conscious and connected community of people in which we adopt a fairer and longer-term view of our pursuits and actions including what we consider possible, what we aim and hope for, what we consider worthy and acceptable.

Ubuntu is an African philosophy of humanity which is founded on the understanding that we are one big human family and promotes the interconnectedness and interdependence of people.  Ubuntu is founded on respect and compassion for others encouraging solidarity, humanity and a deep sense of virtue among members of the community. The philosophy is powerfully expressed in the proverb “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” meaning ‘A person is a person alongside others’. Umuntu means ‘a person’, Abantu means ‘people’, and Ubuntu literally means ‘the way of the people’. I have chosen to use the term ‘Ubuntu’ simply because it is the most popular and recognizable from the many terms that describe this extraordinary way of living and leading life at the community level.

Whilst Ubuntu is strongly rooted, structured in, and associated with Southern Africa it can be found in a number of African countries and in various languages. These include, among others, Swahili in East Africa (Utu), Kikuyu in Kenya (Umundu), Shona in Zimbabwe (Hunhu), and Bonbangi in DR Congo (Gimuntu) which all embody the same or very similar beliefs. A number of African proverbs reflect the values espoused by Ubuntu. Examples include “Kidole kimoja hakiwezi kunja chawa” meaning ‘one finger cannot kill lice’ “Rintiho rinwe a ri nusi hove” which is Tsonga for, 'One finger cannot pick up grain.' and “Izandla ziyagezana” which is Swazi for, 'The hands wash each other”. These proverbs highlight our interdependence and are present throughout Africa and as such the philosophy of Ubuntu may be seen as a widely Pan-African philosophy.

The solving of Africa’s problems requires that everyone embrace the leadership challenge. The philosophy of Ubuntu (Utu) allows an interactive process where everyone is essentially a leader as they are allowed to participate and show initiative in discussing, suggesting solutions, and participating in agreed actions. Ubuntu is therefore meant to be lived at all levels of society starting in the home and extending to the neighbourhood, the work-place, and organizational and national leadership. The performance and commitment of people within groups and societies is linked to the extent that they are valued within that group and that they are given opportunity to participate in outcomes. Being connected to others gives us mirrors against which we may view our actions. People want to do well and to be part of a successful group. A sense of community and connectedness requires sincere intent. Ubuntu considers the success of the community above that of the individual and balances the rights and actions of individuals with the well being of the community. Sincere intent fosters trust in and respect for leaders because people know the leaders have their best interest at heart.

Ubuntu is fully compatable with the philosophy of ‘Sustainism’ and the ideals espoused by ancient Greek philosophers such as Seneca regarding the idea of a connected world.

“Sustainism marks a shift not only in thinking and doing but in collective perception – of how we do business, feed ourselves, design, travel, and communicate, as much as of how we deal with nature and development, and our roles with them” .

Michiel Schwarz, Joost Elffers, ‘Sustainism is the New Modernism’

All big ideas are simple. Ubuntu is a simple, big idea. It asserts that the common ground of our humanity is greater and more enduring than the differences that divide us”.

Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa

Ubuntu is a philosophy. It is not a religion but it is compatible with religion and observes many of the values and key principles of most religious faiths. Ubuntu is about how we relate and interact at the human level. Human endeavor does involve others and as such we are partners in life even if it’s to varying and at times limited degrees.  In harming others we harm ourselves and by helping others we also help ourselves – we are all connected! Accepting and respecting everybody’s humanity means accepting even that of our perceived enemies or adversaries. Being connected partners in the outcomes and well-being of the community everyone has a voice and effectively becomes a leader speaking out and acting in the interest of the community. We should implement the values that we expect our leaders to embody and similarly leadership should embody the values which it expects society to honour.

Whilst Ubuntu is a compassionate philosophy it is not weak. When individuals behave in a way that threatens the community they must be challenged and held accountable. It takes courage, patience and persistence to remodel ourselves and our communities. However, it is worthwhile given the benefits. A powerful example of the application of ubuntu to address community and national issues was in South Africa’s decision to shift from punitive justice to restorative justice in its post-aparthied efforts to heal the grievances of the past and to build a new South Africa for its present and future generations. This process helped to restore the victims as well as the perpetrators of apartheid.

Kwame Nkrumah in his remarkable thesis, ‘Africa Must Unite’ written more than five decades ago, expresses the view that African unity is essential for development. More than fifty years on, it remains true and as such still an imperative for the African continent. Africa needs to take a consolidated approach to its future and development. Given current globalization trends, individual and fragmented efforts in developing Africa are not sustainable. Ubuntu is a practical tool and solution towards achieving this outcome at an African and global level.

"Psychologically we have been so successful that no African leader, even if he did not believe in such unity, would dare say so. What is needed, therefore, is not more preaching about unity but more practicing of unity."

Mwalimu Julius. K. Nyerere (Freedom and Unity)


“Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Our diversity as Africans and indeed ‘world citizens’ should not be a cause for strife but for celebration and should be a strength and not a weakness. Our identity is based not on trying to be replicas of each other but in our holding a common value system and principles as Africans. This identity and its values need to be demonstrated by the people and leaders at all levels of society, and to benefit all Africans. When societies adhere to a strong sense of community and unity of purpose the potential of what can be achieved is limitless! Ubuntu provides a vehicle for the rebirth, revival and renewal of Africa socially, politically, and economically to bring about a true African renaissance.

Ubuntu can offer Africa and the world a new perspective on what it means to lead successful lives at the individual and community level and provide solutions to removing the root causes of many of Africa’s woes. The notion of Ubuntu provides fertile ground for a unifying vision and will prove an effective resource for African communities and the world to achieve peace, unity, and development. The greatest example I have seen of ubuntu in action has been in my 94 year old grandfather, May Nyaningwe, who has been consistent in showing compassion and humility in his interactions within the home and across the community. He did not posses or require any high titles to be an inspiration he simply lead from the heart. People trusted him and often turned to him knowing he always had the greater interests in mind. Ubuntu should therefore not only be present in the halls of power but in the every day lives of wananchi (citizens).