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Thaddeus Metz (author)
14 Nov 2014 10:43
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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