What do we mean when we speak of ubuntu?

Ubuntu is a central idea in post-apartheid South Africa, but scholars disagree on whether it informs the Constitution or undermines it. (AFP)

Ubuntu is a central idea in post-apartheid South Africa, but scholars disagree on whether it informs the Constitution or undermines it. (AFP)

UBUNTU: CURATING THE ARCHIVE edited by Leonhard Praeg and Siphokazi Magadla (UKZN Press)

A REPORT ON UBUNTU by Leonhard Praeg (UKZN Press)

These are rich times for scholarship on ubuntu, the Nguni word for humanness often used as a catchphrase for how indigenous southern Africans lived, or for an ethic or grander philosophy that grew out of traditional sub-Saharan lifestyles. There are a variety of different academic approaches to ubuntu in 21st century South Africa.

There are some who are traditionalist, expounding the way that ubuntu was understood in the past and recommending its application to the present without much change. Other scholars are much more revisionist, holding that several aspects of ubuntu as traditionally understood are neither metaphysically nor morally attractive, but that other facets remain so and should be our exclusive focus. Still others reject ubuntu as an ethic or way of life, maintaining that it is essentially inappropriate for an urban, industrialised, multicultural society.  

There are, in addition, some academics who in the first instance critically explore what talk about ubuntu currently means for South African society. What does the word “ubuntu” connote to different groups? How did they come to speak about it in the way they do? What functions or interests does invoking the term serve (perhaps nefariously) in a particular social context? How does ubuntu compare to other value systems?  

Although these divisions among types of ubuntu scholarship are neither exhaustive nor exclusive, two recent works produced by Leonhard Praeg and others part of the Thinking Africa Project at Rhodes University largely fall into the last category. They primarily address how various groups in South Africa have recently spoken, written and thought about ubuntu, although naturally informed by historical understandings of pre-colonial Africa and with an interest in developing a viable ubuntu-based public morality for contemporary South Africa. I first discuss the volume that Praeg edited with Siphokazi Magadla, and then take up his sole-authored book.

The sub-title of the collection is Curating the Archive, signifying that it is a record of exchanges among scholars at workshops held in 2012 that is part of a broader attempt to expand discussions of African humanism in the post-independence era. The 10 contributions to the volume address a wide array of topics. I will focus on just two salient themes.

One recurrent issue is the relationship between ubuntu and South Africa’s Constitution. Ilze Keevy and Mogobe Ramose agree that the two value systems are incompatible, but for different reasons and with different implications. Keevy prefers the Constitution’s liberal Bill of Rights to the patriarchy, homophobia and parochial spirituality that she deems inherent to ubuntu. In polar opposition, Ramose rejects the Constitution for being anti-African. He especially bemoans the fact that ubuntu was mentioned only in the interim Constitution (of 1993), questions the idea that any body of law should remain above change, and decries what he sees as the fact that South Africa’s particular Constitution has prevented the black majority from obtaining compensatory justice.

In contrast to both Keevy and Ramose, Drucilla Cornell and Katherine Furman contend that an ubuntu constitutionalism is a coherent project. According to them, there is no deep tension between, say, the individual rights in the Constitution and the communitarian nature of ubuntu. In fact, according to Cornell, the conception of dignity that she sees at the heart of ubuntu grounds the essentials of South Africa’s Constitution, or at least the way they should be understood.

This reader sides with Furman’s and Cornell’s interpretation: that the Constitution can fairly be read in an African way. Although it is plausible to think, with Keevy, that ubuntu has traditionally been associated with some undesirable mores (why think that pre-colonial Africa was perfect?), “a contemporary Ubuntu, shorn of its phallo-primocentric values” (in Praeg’s words) seems possible, and merits exploration as something consistent with the Bill of Rights.

And whereas Ramose’s criticism of the fact that ubuntu does not appear in the final Constitution (of 1996) is reasonable, the Constitution may nonetheless be read in light of an egalitarian interpretation of ubuntu, which, Cornell and Furman note, Constitutional Court justices have in fact done on occasion. Such an approach is invited by the Constitution itself, which says that when reading the Bill of Rights, a judge “must promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity” (section 39).

Because any attractive interpretation of ubuntu would count as such a value, it should take centre stage when resolving constitutional disputes in South Africa. And so, if Ramose is correct that ubuntu demands redress for the black majority, the Constitution may sensibly be read as allowing that.

Many would find it nice to have a reasonably well worked out philosophy of ubuntu ahead of time (something I confess to working to develop in my own research). Yet Cornell and Furman, as well as Praeg, argue that it can usefully be developed piecemeal over time, not just by jurists but also by broad swathes of society from the ground up. Presumably, both ways of unpacking ubuntu as an ethic could and should be done, ideally in light of an awareness of each other.

A second major theme in the edited volume is the relationship between the southern African ethic of ubuntu and ethical systems in post-independence Western and Eastern Africa. Ama Biney forcefully argues that ubuntu is not far removed from the communitarian and egalitarian humanism of Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and other philosopher-statesmen.

But nearly everyone, including these very thinkers, agree that their societies did not turn out well, even for the poorest classes in them. That might give one pause about whether ubuntu is appropriate to ground social, political and economic institutions in contemporary Africa.

Issa Shivji in his contribution maintains that neoliberal global forces were responsible for undermining post-independence political projects such as Nyerere’s Ujamaa and that only a continent-wide socialism is viable. My own hunch is that the most attractive elements of ubuntu are incompatible with any economic system that fails to meet people’s needs, meaning that the socialist economies of the 20th century are not what ubuntu recommends. (It hardly follows that ubuntu prescribes neoliberalism, either.)

Praeg’s reaction to the failures of Ujamaa and related schemes is different: that what went wrong was, roughly, that ubuntu was understood in terms of a rigid ideology, as opposed to a certain way of responding to the world. I now turn to Praeg’s own book to clarify the difference.

Much of Praeg’s A Report on Ubuntu is about the relationships between what he calls “ubuntu” (small “u”), understood as a certain pre-colonial mode of life and enquiry, and “Ubuntu’ (capital “U”), understood as a post-colonial philosophy, ethic or ideology that articulates aspects of the former in the form of principles or perhaps a system.

Praeg’s central questions in his book are about how Ubuntu has been conceived by various social actors, what has made these assorted Ubuntu interpretations possible, which social functions they have served, and what has prevented them from truly liberating people in South Africa.

Praeg maintains that most articulations of Ubuntu as a morality or philosophy have failed to genuinely free people because, in part, they have been insufficiently nuanced and comprehensive. In one key example, Praeg notes that, for a while in South Africa, the Ubuntu of reconciliation and nation-building, which prized forgiveness and a sense of togetherness, was salient; but it was one-sided in that it neglected the need to work through the large-scale effects of apartheid, both emotional and economic.

I am tempted to think that what is therefore needed is simply a better, more rounded Ubuntu moral philosophy. Praeg does not believe that will suffice, although he also does not flatly reject the idea of developing an Ubuntu ethic. His view is that anyone working to do so must take constant care to avoid both suffering from major moral blind spots and blinding others to certain urgent moral issues. An Ubuntu philosopher must continually keep in mind the valuable ways of relating that are intuitively associated with ubuntu as a way of life and strive to ensure that her ideas do not become inhibiting.

Such advice strikes me as sensible. But it’s also abstract, more or less prescribing a certain attitude or approach, and hence failing to provide much concrete guidance to those having to make decisions about foreign policy, legal disputes, medical ethics, animal rights or the like. Although Praeg might be correct that (all) previous systematic elaborations of Ubuntu are flawed, it remains urgent for philosophers and related thinkers to develop ones that are more plausible. Ubuntu philosophy is of course informed by ubuntu lifestyles, but it could be that a careful instance of the former could help to promote more of what is valuable about the latter.

Another interesting facet of Praeg’s discussion of Ubuntu as a philosophical orientation is that it is a hybrid of both local and global interests and movements, and is therefore what he calls “glocal” in nature. By this he means, roughly, that while much of the content of an Ubuntu ethic or philosophy is local, derived from the lifestyles of indigenous southern Africans, the form is global, typical of especially Euro-American approaches to knowledge.

Praeg believes Ubuntu philosophies of the sort canvassed at the start of this review are essentially glocal in that they could not have been produced in the absence of contact with societies that are “Weird” (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic). Yet Praeg also believes that, by virtue of their sub-Saharan content, they could be used to highlight respects in which those kinds of societies are undesirable. Ubuntu with a capital “U” is both a product of, and potentially a critical reaction to, modernity.

This point and related ones do not indicate precise ways to question Weird ways of life, let alone provide realistic alternatives for South Africans to consider. Still, I find that they can help ubuntu scholars and others in South Africa understand where they have come from, what they are doing, and some of what they ought to be doing, given a commitment to an emancipatory politics.

Instead of offering practical, normative guidance, for which other moral philosophers, such as myself, primarily aim, emancipation in Praeg’s book mainly takes the form of a call to be inspired by the altruistic elements of ubuntu. In particular, the last two chapters focus on the law, with Praeg urging judges, advocates and legal scholars to accept the difficulty of defining Ubuntu as unavoidable and to ground a socioeconomic jurisprudence on glimpses of what is compelling about a way of life in which to be means to belong.

In many respects, Praeg and the other contributors to the Thinking Africa Project have achieved the goal of fostering self-understanding. Their thoughts especially help to make sense of the roles of ubuntu-talk in contemporary South Africa.

One drawback, to my mind, is that few of their works are likely to be accessible to those without substantial academic training. The self-understanding they have enabled is mainly for scholars who are comfortable using terms such as “epoché” and “aufgehoben”, familiar with philosophers such as GWF Hegel and Jacques Derrida, and able to grasp concepts such as “potentiated double consciousness” and “ontological axiomatic”. I suspect that only readers with postgraduate degrees in the humanities could take something meaty away from these books.

The irony of much work in post-colonial philosophy and studies is that few at the bottom of the post-colony can make use of these enquiries. Praeg is, to his credit, aware of the issue, but has nonetheless elected to produce scholarship that is by and large for scholars. As a scholar, though, I dig it.

Thaddeus Metz is a distinguished research professor of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg.



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