upa-admin 29 Ağustos 2014 5.881 Okunma UBUNTU: AN IMPORTANT TERM TO UNDERSTAND AFRICANS’ VIEW OF GLOBAL HUMANITY için yorumlar kapalı

Abstract: 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.You might have much of the world’s riches, and you might hold a portion of authority, but if you have no Ubuntu, you do not amount to much.”Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “God Has a Dream”, 1999.

In the sentence above Desmond Tutu points out that respecting the humanity of others and having empathy towards others lead us to be positive and welcoming to other people. When we truly believe in Ubuntu, we realize that when someone else is injured, then we ourselves are also injured. This leads us to a point where we are enacting justice on behalf of others.(1) In this paper, I tried to examine what Ubuntu is, a central ethical idea in African Philosophy, not the Linux operating system, but its namesake. Throughout the paper, I looked at the definition, history, concept, principles, aspects of Ubuntu and some practical cases for Ubuntu to understand it better.

Key Words: African Philosophy, Ubuntu.



Ubuntu is one of the famous terms when researchers start to work on African politics. Obviously, it refers to the word “humanity” in English but Ubuntu means beyond its English translation in Africa, because it is an abstract philosophy which shapes African politics. As once Leontine van Hooft mentioned, “Ubuntu is the power of African thinking”. After preparing this paper, I realized that Ubuntu is really famous as mentioned but abstract among (mainly Southern) Africans although it has different names, such as Obuntu, Unhu or Botho. This means that the feeling of Ubuntu is the same everywhere under different names. In this paper, I tried to show the way of Ubuntu in Africa.

Definition of Ubuntu

In terminology, Ubuntu is a term that originates from one of the Bantu dialects of Africa, and is pronounced as uu-Boon-too. It is a South African ethical ideology focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other. There are two common views on its etymological origin. One of the views says that the word comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages. The other view says that it derives from an Nguni Bantu word. However, in both of the views, this powerful African word offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world. When we translate Ubuntu as a term into English we see it as “humanity”.

The two well-known people related to the term define Ubuntu as following;

The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as: “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.”

Munyaradzi Murove writes that “A person who has Ubuntu is someone who puts the concerns of others before his or her own. In this way of living, the person does not do something good because of a god’s commandments; rather the person does something good because it is primarily what it means to be human.”(2)

Before detailing the term, we should get some knowledge about African philosophy which hosts the term “Ubuntu”. Briefly, the most important aspect of African philosophy related to Ubuntu is that it puts the community first unlike Western philosophy which regards the individual as the centre of life. African philosophy emphasizes the sense of communalism that we as human beings should have instead of individualism.

History of Ubuntu(3)

Ubuntu as a term appears in South African sources from as early as the mid 19th century. Reported translations covered the semantic field of human nature, humanness, humanity; virtue, goodness, kindness. Grammatically, the word combines the root -ntu “person, human being” with the -ubu prefix forming abstract nouns, so that the term is exactly parallel in formation to the abstract noun humanity as we mentioned above.

The concept was popularized in terms of a philosophy 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 Africanization propagated by the political thinkers in the 1960s period of decolonization, Ubuntu was used as a term for a specifically African (or Southern African) kind of socialism or humanism found in blacks, but lacking in whites, in the context of the transition to black majority rule in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The first publication dedicated to Ubuntu as a philosophical concept appeared in 1980, Hunhuism or Ubuntuism: A Zimbabwe Indigenous Political Philosophy by Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange. Hunhuism or Ubuntuism is presented as political ideology for the new Zimbabwe, as Southern Rhodesia was granted independence from the United Kingdom. From Zimbabwe, the concept was taken over in South Africa in the 1990s as a guiding ideal 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”.

Ubuntu as a concept

It is a fact that one cannot have humanity enough 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.(4) The view ‘I think therefore I am’ of Descartes is translated in Africa in: ‘I am because we are’. And seen in the light of development, you can say: ‘I become because we are’. Therefore, Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It also speaks about our interconnectedness and interdependence as people and the way they relate, think and act together as one people created in one universe.It follows then that obligation to the community (Umoja), which the family was embedded, was of critical importance.(5)

The concept of Ubuntu is related to human happiness and wellbeing. A fuller meaning of Ubuntu can be found in a Zulu proverb “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, (meaning a human being is a human being through other human being). This indicates “I am because you are”. Thus, Ubuntu avoids the materialism of the Western world and it recognizes that the human self-exist and develops only in relationship with others.(6)

The concept of Ubuntu is summarized as it:(7)

  • is to be contrasted with vengeance,
  • dictates that a high value be placed on the life of a human being,
  • is inextricably linked to the values of and which places a high premium on dignity, compassion, humaneness and respect for humanity of another,
  • dictates a shift from confrontation to mediation and conciliation,
  • dictates good attitudes and shared concern,
  • favours the re-establishment of harmony in the relationship between parties and that such harmony should restore the dignity of the plaintiff without ruining the defendant,
  • favours restorative rather than retributive justice,
  • operates in a direction favouring reconciliation rather than estrangement of disputants,
  • works towards sensitising a disputant or a defendant in litigation to the hurtful impact of his actions to the other party and towards changing such conduct rather than merely punishing the disputant,
  • promotes mutual understanding rather than punishment,
  • favours face-to-face encounters of disputants with a view to facilitating differences being resolved rather than conflict and victory for the most powerful,
  • favours civility and civilised dialogue premised on mutual tolerance.

Ubuntu Principles

The main principles of Ubuntu are as following:

Caring community, empathy, harmony, helpfulness, humanistic orientation and collective unity, interdependence, respect full humans and human life, selflessness, sharing, solidarity, trust and etc.(8)

According to these principles, it is the community that should determine the perspective, not the individual. However, the emphasis on the community does not imply that the value of the individual does not matter because a community is composed of individual, members of that community all having potential to develop themselves.

Aspects of Ubuntu

Ubuntu has 3 main aspects: religious, political and social.


For many Africans, while they may belong to different societies and have different traditions and rituals, Ubuntu usually has a strong religious meaning. In general, the African belief is that your ancestors continue to exist amongst the living in the form of spirits and they are your link to the Divine Spirit. If you are in distress or need, you approach your ancestors’ spirits and it is they who will intercede on your behalf with God. Therefore, it is important to not only venerate your ancestors, but to, eventually, yourself become an ancestor worthy of veneration. For this, you agree to respect your community’s rules, you undergo initiation to establish formal ties with both the current community members and those that have passed on, and you ensure harmony by adhering to the Ubuntu principles in the course of your life.


Understanding and respecting humanity of others are important and necessary, because, like it or not, we are all interconnected and dependent each other. The concept “What hurts you could one day come around and hurt me” is a requirement to understand each other.


This classical African ethical ideology is regarded as one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa. Since the downfall of apartheid, later the transition to democracy with the Nelson Mandela presidency in 1994, Ubuntu as a term has become more widely mentioned in the political context to bring about a stronger sense of unity.

On 19 February 1997, the South African National Assembly passed the White Paper for Social Welfare, and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Minister for Welfare and Population Development, announced that “the passage of the White Paper for Social Welfare through the National Assembly signals the start of a new era in welfare delivery in South Africa. For the first time in our country’s history delivery in the welfare field will be driven by key principles such as democracy, partnership, Ubuntu, equity, and inter-sectorial collaboration, among others.

Also, “Ubuntu as a political philosophy has aspects of socialism, propagating the redistribution of wealth. 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 undermine 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.”(10)

Cases to see Ubuntu in Africa

In this section, we show some case countries to see Ubuntu’s power (religion, society and politics). The most visible countries are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania.

South Africa

South Africa is one the countries in which Ubuntu principle is very (maybe the most) visible. In 2006, Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as: “A traveller 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 to be able to improve?

Therefore, Ubuntu is seen as one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa, and is connected to the idea of an African Renaissance Mellerenimium. 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.(11)


In the Shona language the majority spoken language in Zimbabwe after English, Ubuntu is called as 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 Ubuntuism which shape this philosophy.(12) The first maxim asserts that 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. 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 says that the king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him.

In a common sense in Zimbabwe, a leader who has Unhu (Ubuntu) is selfless and consults widely and listens to his subjects. He or she does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from his subjects and lives among his subjects and shares what he owns.


In SeTswana language the same concept and understanding exists. It is called as 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). 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.

Rwanda and Burundi

In Rundi, the national language of Rwanda and Burundi, Ubuntu means, “human generosity” as well as humanity. In Rwanda and Burundi society it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to “gira ubunt” (having consideration and be humane towards others), thus it has the extended meanings of generosity or.(14) 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 neither mercy nor consideration to others.

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)our term is called as “Obuntu”. It refers to the same meaning: 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.(15)


In this paper we looked at the definition, history, concept, principles, aspects of Ubuntu, and some cases for it. Briefly, Ubuntu is the essence of being human.

When we act upon deeply feeling a sense of being connected to others by our common humanity, when we truly regard self and other as one, when we cherish human dignity, all of our relationships and the level of our behaviours and actions are raised to a higher plane. When we understand and practice Ubuntu we will realize that each has vital role to play, which must be held in balance, no one dominating the other. We must “Break the walls down; build the body up: and bring the people together.”(16)

Therefore, we can say that Ubuntu is not a religious belief. Truly, it is not even an all-encompassing worldview. At its most powerful, Ubuntu is scarcely a moral imperative. By recognizing that we are all persons only through other persons, that I am human only because of the humanity of others, and that humans are intrinsically interconnected, I have a reason to treat others with respect. I have a reason to be affirming of others. I have a reason to be kind and welcoming and generous. It is this concept of Ubuntu that gives us the motivation to become real human beings and to treat others as such.(17)

Finally, we want to conclude this paper with our own sentence after focusing on Ubuntu for a time.

Ubuntu… We are humans because of the fact that others are humans. Each of us is a part of the puzzle played by the God”.


Hacı Mehmet BOYRAZ



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  2. http://kwanzaaguide.com/2012/10/ubuntu-the-african-virtue-and-cultural-foundations-of-the-7-principles-of-kwanzaa/ (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
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  9. http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/7-22-2006-103206.asp(Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_%28philosophy%29 (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  11. http://www.peuplesawa.com/fr/bnnews.php?nid=1987 (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  12. http://www.peuplesawa.com/fr/bnnews.php?nid=1987 (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  13. http://www.peuplesawa.com/fr/bnnews.php?nid=1987 (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  14. http://www.peuplesawa.com/fr/bnnews.php?nid=1987 (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  15. http://www.peuplesawa.com/fr/bnnews.php?nid=1987 (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  16. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/reverend-william-e-flippin-jr/ubuntu-applying-african-p_b_1243904.html (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)
  17. http://thehurt.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/ubuntu/ (Date of Accession: 12.08.2014)

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