Ubuntu Explained

There are many different, and not always compatible, definitions of what ubuntu is. “What is Ubuntu? Different Interpretations among South Africans of African Descent”. Ubuntu asserts that society, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity. An example is a Zulu-speaking person who when telling you to speak in Zulu would say “khuluma isintu,” which means “speak the language of people”. When someone behaves according to custom, a Sotho-speaking person would say “ke motho,” which means “he/she is a human”. The exclusionary and abhorrent aspect of this would be exemplified by a tale told (often, in private quarters) in Nguni “kushone abantu ababili ne Shangaan”, in Sepedi “go tlhokofetje batho ba babedi le leShangane”, in English (two people died and one Shangaan). In each of these examples, humanity comes from conforming to or being part of the tribe.

According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarized as follows: “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”.

An “extroverted communities” aspect is the most visible part of this ideology. There is sincere warmth with which people treat both strangers and members of the community. This overt display of warmth is not merely aesthetic but enables formation of spontaneous communities (co-operatives if you will). The resultant collaborative work within these spontaneous communities transcends the aesthetic and gives functional significance to the value of warmth. How else are you to ask for sugar from your neighbour? Warmth is not the sine qua non of community formation but guards against instrumentalist relationships. Unfortunately, sincere warmth may leave one vulnerable to those with ulterior motives.

“Ubuntu” as political philosophy has aspects of socialism, propagating the redistribution of wealth. This is similar to redistributive policies in liberalism. This socialisation is a vestige of agrarian peoples as a hedge against the crop failures of individuals. Socialisation presupposes a community population with which individuals empathise and concomitantly, have a vested interest in its collective prosperity. Urbanisation and the aggregation of people into an abstract and bureaucratic state undermines this empathy. African Intellectual historians like Michael Onyebuchi Eze have argued however 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 a community’s good through an unconditional recognition and appreciation of individual uniqueness and difference.

“Redemption” relates to how people deal with errant, deviant and dissident members of the community. The belief is that man is born formless like a lump of clay. It is up to the community, as a whole, to use the fire of experience and the wheel of social control to mold him into a pot that may be of general use. Any imperfections should be borne by the community and the community should always seek to redeem man. An example of this is the statement by the African National Congress (in South Africa) that it does not throw out its own but rather redeems. A possible limitation of this is that not all clay is the same and not all tools are pots or of general use. Likewise, not all people are the same or similar, and not all people are fated to have the same or similar function.

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