The process of pursuing decolonisation of the colonial and apartheid knowledge and cultural projects, often relates to retrieval of the precolonial. What is the place of ubuntu in such an endeavour?
When people refer to the word “ubuntu” in South Africa, it is generally intended to be understood as having an obvious meaning and to counsel what is good, and desirable for building constructive relationships between human beings. Often it is seen as a specifically African concept. (See: Magobe Ramose. African Philosophy through ubuntu. Rev ed. Mond Books. Harare, 2002. and J. Broodryk’s Ubuntu: Management Philosophy. Knowledge Resources Publishing. Pretoria, 2006).
The word connotes “humanness”, deriving from proverbs meaning that one person realises himself or herself through relationships with others. Ubuntu is a proverb – which is found in many African languages in South Africa. “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu/ motho ke motho ke bantu” – “a person is a person because of others”. Nomboniso Gasa writes:
“It is a proverb that speaks to a wider context of social relations in communities and how these are mitigated, mediated and the laws that apply to build community harmony amongst peoples. It serves as a guide in the relationship between individuals and community and emphasises the aspect of being together as part of that community.
“It guides how people come together in times of strife, chip in, bury each other, and help shoulder problems together. It also provides the basis for individual accountability to a community and also to a clan.
“It denotes a higher sense of morality and values, which put the interest of community and harmony at a higher level than individual interests.” (Personal communication, Nomboniso Gasa, 18 March 2012)
Professor Ramose, in interpreting ubuntu, describes it as a philosophy, and says: “human individuality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a person…” (p. 65).
Until an individual is incorporated into this or that community, individuals are considered to be entities to whom the description “person” does not fully apply. Personhood is something that is achieved. It is not simply given because one is born of human seed. In the long process of becoming a person, the community plays a vital role as catalyst and in prescribing norms. (Ramose, pp. 65-66).
The term ubuntu has considerable currency in South African discourse. On the one hand, it is widely used by religious and political leaders, to embrace a broad respect which human beings are encouraged to have towards one another. Embracing ubuntu as a way of living is often seen as something that can hold South Africans together and become a basis for “social cohesion” and common nationhood.
While that may be a worthy aspiration, which is in line with emancipatory values, the reality is that many South Africans do not live according to the precepts of the literal meaning of ubuntu (briefly outlined in the quotations from Ramose and Gasa) and indeed ubuntu has been appropriated by a variety of enterprises, whose mission may diverge widely from any emancipatory vision.
In some respects ubuntu has become commercialised, being used, as is the case with certain other words and phrases as the name of business enterprises. (cf for example Ubuntu Armed Response, Ubuntu Financial Services, Ubuntu Catering, Ubuntu bikes). These companies know the salience that the words have for many South Africans but they are adopted not because the enterprise is at all related to the concept, but purely for profit making. Ubuntu is also advanced as a “management phillosophy” to raise productivity, as in Broodryk’s work, mentioned above.
How should we relate to ubuntu? Although ubuntu is found in proverbs in isiXhosa, isiZulu and other Nguni and Sotho languages, it also has equivalents in other South African languages and languages of other African countries, for example, in various versions of Shona. (Michael Gelfand, The genuine Shona: survival values of an African culture. Gwelo. Mambo Press,1973). It is sometimes claimed that similar words are found in countries throughout the continent.
At the same time, there is resistance in some quarters to the idea that this word has non-African equivalents, such as “fraternity” or “humanism”. (Ramose, 2002). Broodryk, who is described as “the first person to obtain a doctoral degree on the philosophy of Ubuntu” (cover of his book), is very definite about the “African” and “philosophical” character of ubuntu. He writes: “Ubuntu should not be confused with the general philosophy of Western Humanism. Ubuntu as humanness is African” (at p. 1).
It unnecessary to enter controversies on the uniqueness or otherwise of ubuntu as a concept, though we need to know that this is contested. While it is a concept open to a variety of meanings my object is primarily to ask whether it can be conceived and advanced within an overall emancipatory perspective.
It cannot be decreed that ubuntu has one or other meaning. Insofar as ubuntu is widely diffused in South African discourse there needs to be debate –if ubuntu is to contribute towards constructive social interactions in this country.
The basic words of the proverbs from which ubuntu derives seem –essentially- to enjoin human beings to relate to one another in a manner that is in line with the notion of community, (as indicated by the first quotation from Ramose, above). A community is essentially about joining people together on a range of potential bases. Ubuntu is in its literal meaning about realising oneself through the Other, counselling individuals against selfish, inconsiderate practices and to relate constructively to one another because that is the basis for wellbeing of each person.
We need to engage with the various ways in which ubuntu is being used. It is often seen as an unchanging element of African culture and also a quality that inheres in all African people. (Ramose, 2002.) But it is important in initiating debate that we try to establish meanings, in the plural, that are given to ubuntu, where it is in use, given that African people live in some cases in conditions similar to that under which the proverb originally emerged, but also many or most are now in quite different situations. To what extent and how is the concept used in these new conditions? Is it possible to develop a common meaning or a synthesis which is at the same time emancipatory, inclusive, community-oriented and respectful of all the peoples of South Africa? The answer to that question ought to derive from debate.
But there are other questions that add complexity. Insofar as ubuntu derives from proverbs in Nguni languages and equivalents in seSotho and other languages, there are also proverbs in these languages that counsel behaviour that is contrary to that of ubuntu, or in their divergence point to complementary features of social interactions. Thus Gasa writes:
“There is a problem in elevating one proverb to a philosophy as it distorts the complexity of African cultural contexts and their milieux. It strips African communities of their rich, contradictory and multi-layered forms of engagement as found in any societies and civilisations. It distils a whole complex system to one proverb and consequently denies and silences other aspects which may not sit well with the ‘noble and essential African goodness’ and that lacks complexity.
“Ubuntu coexists with other proverbs. Akukho nkwal ‘ephandele nye, ephandelenye yenethole – no pheasant scratches for another – the one that does so, does for its own offspring first. This is a balance of individual and community relations and responsibilities. How do you become a member of a community when you are not handling your own family justly, fairly and together?
“There are many others which in fact contextualise this notion of goodness and togetherness.
“What we need to understand if we want to take ubuntu away from the ethnophilosophical discourse and give it substance that is progressive is that firstly it is not a philosophy although it has come to be seen as such. Even if we wanted to develop it to that – we cannot deny that it is part of a complex web of a socio-cultural world that is based on patriarchy, sometimes violence against its own and unequal power relations. Those aspects have to be acknowledged and unpacked fully... “ (Gasa, personal communication, above. The notion of “ethnophilosophy” was developed by Paulin Hountondji, to describe essentialised notions of African thinking, the idea that there is an “African philosophy” as claimed by Ramose and Broodryk [amongst others], as opposed to philosophers from or in Africa, as with Germany and other states. See Hountondji, African Philosophy. Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press. Indianapolis, 2 ed. 1997, for example, at pp. 33-34).
The significance of the existence of proverbs counselling other forms of behaviour is that it indicates that contesting visions are found in proverbs. It means that precolonial African society, was not one of pure unanimity or what Hountondji refers to as an “imaginary consensus”, but also contestation over how one should live. Africans, like all peoples have contradictions and conflicts. Ubuntu was but one way of managing these.
Contrary to the cynics my belief is that it is important to advance a humanistic, and emancipatory notion of ubuntu while recognising that its meanings are contested. For ubuntu to have continued salience it needs to be understood as an ongoing and dynamic concept. As a part of African cultures it connot exist in a static form nor in isolation. As with other cultures and elements of cultures it always bears a connection with those “outside” of it.
The meanings that ubuntu bears are not beyond debate. That means that one will have to argue against the hierarchical, patriarchal and other anti-democratic qualities, often attributed to the term. It is not a notion that has a singular, essentialist, time honoured and unchanging meaning. In truth, in evaluating how we should understand ubuntu we confront the same issues as arise with other areas of culture with some people advancing an “obvious” meaning that is readily available to all of us and define what those qualities are always supposed to be. This often coexists with patriarchal and hierarchical values.
One thing that is crucial is that we resist the lure of “obviousness” the assumption that understandings of relationships and proverbs are “obvious”. But that being the case we need to ask ourselves what it means for human beings to realise themselves through interaction with others, why this is so important to claim and elaborate in order to build a truly humane and compassionate society.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. The next launch will be at Ikes books in Durban on 4 October, 5.30 for 6 pm, with Professor Monique Marks as discussant. Suttner blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner