Ubuntu pronounced [ùbúntú], is a traditional African concept. The word ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Xhola languages, and can be roughly translated as "humanity towards others." Ubuntu embodies all those virtues that maintain harmony and the spirit of sharing among the members of a society. It implies an appreciation of traditional beliefs, and a constant awareness that an individual’s actions today are a reflection on the past, and will have far-reaching consequences for the future. A person with ubuntu knows his or her place in the universe and is consequently able to interact gracefully with other individuals. One aspect of ubuntu is that, at all times, the individual effectively represents the people from among whom he or she comes, and therefore tries to behave according to the highest standards and exhibit the virtues upheld by his or her society.
During the 1990s, the concept of ubuntu was adapted as an ideology by post-apartheid South Africa, as a vehicle to bring about harmony and cooperation among its many racial and ethnic groups. The ethical values of ubuntu include respect for others, helpfulness, community, sharing, caring, trust, and unselfishness. Ubuntu underscores the importance of agreement or consensus, and gives priority to the well-being of the community as a whole.
Meaning of the word ubuntu
The word ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Xhola languages, and can be roughly translated as "humanity towards others," and "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity." Related Bantu languages have similar terms. In the Shona language, the most common spoken language in Zimbabwe after English, ubuntu is unhu; the concept of ubuntu in Zimbabwe is similar to that of other African cultures. In Kinyarwanda, the mother tongue in Rwanda, and in Kirundi, the mother tongue in Burundi, ubuntu means 'human generosity' as well as 'humanity.' In Rwanda and Burundi societies, it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to gira ubuntu meaning to "have consideration and be humane" towards others. In Runyakitara, the collection of dialects spoken by the Banyankore, Banyoro, Batooro and Bakiga of Western Uganda and also the Bahaya, Banyambo and others of Northern Tanzania, obuntu refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humaneness towards others in the community. In Luganda, the dialect of Central Uganda obuntu-bulamu refers to the same characteristics.
Samkange’s explanation of ubuntu
In 1980, Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange (1922–1988), a Zimbabwean historiographer, educator, journalist, author, and African nationalist, attempted to systematize an African epistemology in Hunuism or Ubuntuism. He emphasized three maxims which shape the philosophy of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism:
- “To be human is to affirm one's humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.”
- “If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life.”
- “The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him.” This, Samkange said, was a “principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy.”
According to Samkange, sharing is only one of many virtues encompassed within unhu. In the ethical domain of unhu, all visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through, without the expectation of payment, and do not need to carry provisions when they are on the read, as long as they dress in a respectable manner. Every individual who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality should try his or her best to make that visitor comfortable.
Another aspect of ubuntu is that, at all times, the individual effectively represents the people from among whom he or she comes. It is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames to banish individualism and replace it with a representative role. The individual’s identity is replaced by a larger societal identity. Every individual represents a family, village, district, province and region. This requires the individual to behave according to the highest standards and to exhibit, to the greatest possible degree, the virtues upheld by his or her society. Unhu embodies all those virtues that maintain harmony and the spirit of sharing among the members of a society.
A key concept associated with ubuntu, or unhu, is behavior and interaction in the context of various social roles. For example, a daughter-in-law traditionally kneels down when greeting her parents-in-law and serves them food, as a sign of respect. She maintains the highest standards, because her behavior is a reflection on her family and on all the women raised in that family. The daughter-in-law does this as part of the ambassadorial function that she assumes at all times. A woman’s deference to a husband or brother does not imply that the woman is subordinate, only that she possesses unhu and knows the proper attitude and behavior for each social circumstance.
Under unhu, children are never orphans, since the roles of mother and father are, by definition, not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with unhu will never allow any child around him or her to be an orphan.
The concept of unhu is also essential to traditional African jurisprudence and governance. Under unhu, a crime committed by one individual against another extends far beyond the two individuals and has far-reaching implications for the people from among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes. Unhu jurisprudence supports remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. A crime of murder might be remedied by creating a bond of marriage between the families of the victim and the accused, in addition to punishing the perpetrator both inside and outside his social circles. The family and the society from which the criminal came are regarded as a sort of “tertiary perpetrator,” and are punished with a fine and social stigma that can only be absolved by many years of demonstrating unhu or ubuntu. A leader who has unhu is selfless, consults widely and listens to his subjects. He or she does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from his subjects, but lives among them and shares what he owns. A leader who has unhu does not lead but allows the people to lead themselves. Forcefully imposing his or her will on his people is incompatible with unhu.
Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, Yu u nobuntu; "Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu." Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours." ... We say, "A person is a person through other persons." ... A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. ... To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. [Forgiveness] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. 
Ubuntu and Western Humanism
The unifying worldview of Ubuntu is expressed in the Zulu maxim "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu," ("a person is a person through other persons"), also common in Shona as "munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu." By a Western humanist, this aphorism might be interpreted as an effective social ethic or rule of conduct, or simply as a description of the human situation. In traditional African thought this maxim has a profoundly religious significance. “Persons” includes not only living human beings, but ancestors who have already died and children who have not yet been born. Ubuntu or unhu embodies deep respect for ancestors, and includes all the attitudes and behaviors necessary not only for a harmonious life with other individuals on earth, but with ancestors in the world beyond death and with those who will live on earth in the future. Every individual is the fruit of his or her ancestors, and will become the ancestor of all future descendants.
Ubuntu implies an appreciation of traditional beliefs, and a constant awareness that an individual’s actions today are a reflection on the past, and will have far-reaching consequences for the future. A person with ubuntu knows his or her place in the universe and is consequently able to interact gracefully with other individuals. Those who uphold ubuntu throughout their lives will, in death, achieve a unity with those still living. In Western thought, an individual is a pre-existent and self-sufficient being and exists prior to, separately and independently from the rest of the community or society. Ubuntu defines the individual only in terms of his or her relationships with others in the community. As these relationships change, the character of the individual changes. An individual constitutes multiple personalities corresponding to his or her various roles in society.
Change in South Africa
During the 1990s, the concept of ubuntu was adapted into an ideology in post-apartheid South Africa, as a vehicle to bring about harmony and cooperation among its many racial and ethnic groups. Ubuntu is regarded as one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa, and has been associated with the idea of an “African Renaissance.” In the political sphere, the concept of ubuntu is used to emphasize the need for unity or consensus in decision-making, as well as the need for a suitably humanitarian ethic to inform those decisions.
The ethical values of ubuntu ideology include respect for others, helpfulness, community, sharing, caring, trust and unselfishness. It is seen as a basis for a morality of co-operation, compassion, and communalism. Ubuntu underscores the importance of agreement or consensus, and gives priority to the well-being of the community as a whole.
A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you be able to improve?
The concept of ubuntu ideology is illustrated in the film In My Country, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche.
Ubuntu is the founding philosophy of Ubuntu Pathways (formerly Ubuntu Education Fund), an NGO working with orphans and vulnerable children in Gqeberha, South Africa, previously known as Port Elizabeth.
- Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (Doubleday, 1999, ISBN 978-0385496896).
- Augustine Shutte, Philosophy for Africa (Rondebosch, South Africa: UCT Press, 1993, ISBN 9780799214871), 46.
- John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Heinemann, Oxford, 1990, ISBN 9780435895914), 108.
- Dirk J. Louw, Ubuntu: An African Assessment of the Religious Other. Paper delivered at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, Massachusetts, August 10-15, 1998. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
- The Ubuntu Experience (Nelson Mandela Interview), YouTube. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
- The story of Ubuntu Ubuntu, Canonical Ltd. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
- Ubuntu: Code of Conduct Ubuntu, Canonical Ltd. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
- Ubuntu Pathways Retrieved November 17, 2022.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Broodryk, Johann. Ubuntu: life lessons from Africa. Pretoria: Ubuntu School of Philosophy, 2002. ISBN 9780620293310
- Matshe, Getrude. Born on the continent: Ubuntu. Wellington, NZ: Gertrude Matshe, 2006. ISBN 9780473110208
- Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. Oxford: Heinemann, 1990. ISBN 9780435895914
- Samkange, Stanlake John Thompson, and Tommie Marie Samkange. Hunhuism or Ubuntuism: A Zimbabwe indigenous political philosophy. Salisbury: Graham Pub., 1980. ISBN 9780869210154
- Shutte, Augustine. Philosophy for Africa. Rondebosch, South Africa: UCT Press, 1993. ISBN 9780799214871
- Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. Doubleday, 1999. ISBN 978-0385496896
All links retrieved May 2, 2023.
- Ubuntu told by Nelson Mandela YouTube
- 'I Am Because We Are': The African Philosophy of Ubuntu
- Hunhu/Ubuntu in the Traditional Thought of Southern Africa Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- What does ubuntu really mean? by Nkem Ifejika, The Guardian
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