Ubuntu: I am, because you are.
Ubuntu is just part of the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which literally means “a person is a person through other people.” Ubuntu has its roots in African philosophy, where the idea of community is one of the building blocks of society. Ubuntu is that nebulous concept of common humanity, living for the common good, you and me both.
“The main modern proponent of ubuntu philosophy is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, he describes a person with ubuntu as “open and available to others, affirming of others … has a proper self-assurance.” The ubuntu this person possesses comes from being part of a greater whole. South Africa’s post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission, which was chaired by Tutu, would have borrowed from ubuntu philosophy.” (Nkem Ifejika in What does ubuntu really mean?).
The Emergence of Ubuntu in modern times:
The concept was popularised in terms of a “philosophy” or “world view” (as opposed to a quality attributed to an individual) beginning in the 1950s, notably in the writings of Jordan Kush Ngubane published in the African Drum magazine. From the 1970s, the ubuntu began to be described as a specific kind of “African humanism”. Based on the context of Africanisation propagated by the political thinkers in the 1960s period of decolonisation, ubuntu was used as a term for a specifically African (or Southern African) kind of socialism or humanism…
Ubuntu became a guiding ideal for South Africa in the 1990s for the transition from apartheid to majority rule. The term appears in the Epilogue of the Interim Constitution of South Africa (1993), “there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization” (From Wikipedia).
The Core of Ubuntu:
According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarised as:
‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”. (Eze, M. O. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa, pp. 190–191.)
How is Ubuntu different from Socialism?
“Ubuntu” as political philosophy has aspects of socialism, propagating the redistribution of wealth. It is a vestige of agrarian peoples as a hedge against the crop failures of individuals. Socialism presupposes a community population with which individuals empathise and concomitantly, have a vested interest in its collective prosperity. However urbanization and the aggregation of people into an abstract and bureaucratic state undermines this empathy.
Eze and other African Historians argue that this ideal of “collective responsibility” must not be understood as absolute in which the community’s good is prior to the individual’s good. On this view, ubuntu it is argued, is a communitarian philosophy that is widely differentiated from the Western notion of communitarian socialism. In fact, ubuntu induces an ideal of shared human subjectivity that promotes the common good through an unconditional recognition and appreciation of individual uniqueness and difference. Audrey Tang has suggested that Ubuntu “implies that everyone has different skills and strengths; people are not isolated, and through mutual support they can help each other to complete themselves.” (From Wikipedia).
Ubuntu: I am because You are… for the Common Good
I highlight Ubuntu on this day entering into the month to contemplate the place of violence in our times – that we would learn from the wisdom of the ages, and the character of the Creator who made us for Himself.
In so doing, He made us for each other.
For more on the mystery of personhood found in the other, see: Being as Communion.
For more on Ubuntu, read “I am because we are” by Elisabeth Barahona.