I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about ubuntu. It was such a foundational concept for Archbishop Tutu, but is met frequently – in South Africa – with cynicism. Along with the rhetoric that ultimate liberation was sold out, the term ubuntu has often come to stand in for the ultimate impunity of most apartheid perpetrators, and the unfinished work of transforming our economy. There is a sense that ubuntu was interpreted as putting ‘niceness’ and ‘relationships’ ahead of justice.
But the more I really sit with the idea of ubuntu, the more radical it becomes. It is at once a fact; an injunction; and an aspiration. Ubuntu compels us to genuinely perceive one another, transcending the societal frameworks that impose gendered and racial identities upon us. This perception is founded on the belief that every living being and the natural world are linked – I cannot fully comprehend my existence unless I acknowledge yours. The notion of perceiving one another is revolutionary in a world that has indoctrinated us with fear and apprehension towards each other. The fact of ubuntu is simply that as human beings we are fundamentally made up of our relationships with each other, and the planet.
As the Arch put it:
“My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.”
This does not mean just the intentional relationships we forge; but that we are also bound up in a great web of societal relations and dynamics. It is simply a fact that I am both who I am because of the people I surround myself with, as well as the relationships defined by the power, exploitation, and injustice that characterise our society. In his excellent book, Nation on the Couch: Inside South Africa’s Mind, Professor Wahbie Long argues that as a society, South Africa is defined by relationships of relationlessness. This powerfully captures two fundamental realities – that we are all in relationship with each other, and at the same time, that that relationship is largely defined by alienation from each other.
If ubuntu is just a fact – it simply is true that we are social creatures, who are made up of a vast network of personal and societal relationships – then it naturally follows that ubuntu also is an injunction to act. If my humanity is bound up in yours, then to improve the quality of my own being requires a process of improving the quality of all the lives around me. It means that the dehumanisation of any person, contributes to my own dehumanisation. Living in such an unequal country as South Africa, the necessity to make change, the demand of ubuntu, is urgent and immediate. But this demand is also clear in the world around us; in the UK, where refugees and migrants are being targeted, in the US where trans* people are experiencing waves of discrimination, in Uganda where gay people are threatened with state-led violence, in Palestine where there is daily oppression of people, and in Sudan where millions of people have been displaced because of the violent conflict.
And if ubuntu makes visible the necessity of action, it must also be something to which we aspire. The Arch described people embodying by ubuntu as follows:
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, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
In this, we can all take forward an aspiration to live as open, affirming, and life-enhancing, to each other as we can. To live fully with ubuntu is to open one’s heart to the great joys and suffering of the world; to weep fiercely, to act kindly; and to grow wherever possible a greater capacity for societal good.