Letsema Centre

Debating African Ubuntu

Letsema Centre Debates find their basis in a question. The aim is to define certain phrases or words in a way in which everyone can express his or her personal view on the topic.
This topic deals with the question »What is Ubuntu?« - this article has been compiled by Mandy Mpungose.

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Debating African Ubuntu

Compiled by Mandy Mpungose

Generally speaking UBUNTU is an ancient African philosophy translated loosely as meaning »living in humble humanity with other people« One of the saying in South Africa is that Ubuntu is the essence of simply being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It also speaks about our interconnectedness and interdependendness as people and the way they relate, think and act together as one people created in one universe.

It is a fact that one cannot human enough all by themselves, and when a person have the UBUNTU quality they ordinarily seen or known for being humbly and generously selfless. More often than not, we people think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals living and acting separately from others and the universe, and this is not true, because we are intrinsically connected as people, and what you do affects others and the world including nature in many ways.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once argued and stated that the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (»a person is a person through other persons«) may have no apparent religious connotations in the context of Western societies, in an African context it suggests that the person who behaves with humanity will eventually be an ancestor worthy of respect or veneration. Those who uphold the principle of ubuntu throughout their lives will, in death, achieve a unity with those still living.

Nelson Mandela also once shared in an interview with Tim Modise that a traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for water or for food. 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 enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?

UBUNTU therefore also means »I AM WHAT I AM BECAUSE OF WHO WE ALL ARE«. Some of the traits that define UBUNTU include respect, helpfulness, caring community, sharing, trust, selflessness, etc. These are also seen as part of what is called the SPIRIT OF UBUNTU.

Perspectives on UBUNTU in Zimbabwe

In the Shona language the majority spoken language in Zimbabwe after English, ubuntu is unhu. The concept of UBUNTU is viewed the same in Zimbabwe as in other African cultures, and the Zulu saying is also common in Shona: munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu. Stanlake J.W.T Samkange (1980) highlights the three maxims of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism which shape this philosophy: The first maxim asserts that »To be human is to affirm ones humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them«. And the second maxim means that »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 third maxim as a principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy which says that »The king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him«. While sharing is incorporated within »Unhu«, it is only one of the multiplicities of virtues within »Unhu« domain, visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through without payment being expected.

In fact every individual should try his or her best to make visitors comfortable and this applies to everyone who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality. Other manifestations of UBUNTU are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names instead they are called by their surnames. This has the effect of banishing individualism and replacing it with a representative role, in which the individual effectively stands for the people amongst whom s/he comes from at all times. Thus, families are portrayed or reflected in the individual and this phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions being portrayed as the highest possible virtues that societies strives for. Unhu embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.

Perspectives on UBUNTU in Botswana

In SeTswana language the same concept and understanding exists. It is called Botho, and the phrase that person is a person through other people translates to »Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Ba Bangwe«. Botho is one of Botswana’s five national principles (the others being Democracy, Development, Self Reliance and Unity). Botswana Vision 2016 states: Botho defines a process for earning respect by first giving it, and to gain empowerment by empowering others. It encourages people to applaud rather than resent those who succeed. It disapproves of anti-social, disgraceful, inhuman and criminal behaviour, and encourages social justice for all.

Perspectives on UBUNTU in Rwanda and Burundi

In Rwanda - Rundi, the national language of Rwanda and Burundi, UBUNTU means among other things, “human generosity” as well as humanity. In Rwanda and Burundi society it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to »gira ubuntu« meaning to »have consideration and be humane towards others«, thus it has the extended meanings of generosity or »giving yourself free at no cost expected from those benefiting«. It also has the general meaning of » human's essence« which also include the other meanings of the word, as it will be said of a person who shows no mercy nor consideration to others Is an animal » igikoko, inyamaswa«.

Perspectives on UBUNTU in Uganda and Tanzania

In Kitara a dialect cluster spoken by the Nyankore, Nyoro, Tooro, and Kiga of western Uganda and also the Haya, Nyambo and others of northern Tanzania OBUNTU refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humaneness towards others in the community. In Lunganda the language of central Uganda obuntu bulamu means being humane, showing kindness and refers to the same characteristics.

Acknowledgements and Disclaimers: Main source of reference: www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy. Mandy is part time Volunteer with Letsema Centre for Development and Democracy.