South Africa’s Spirit of Ubuntu

A tricky word to translate into English; “ubuntu” can best be summed up as: “I am, because you are”. Ubuntu speaks of our humanity and connectedness, and recognises that our own wellbeing is deeply tied to the wellbeing of others.

Ubuntu originated in Southern Africa where it has long been a guiding priciple in the way others should be treated. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “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”.

Building the New South Africa through Ubuntu

Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994. As president, had his actions been driven by resentment and revenge this fledgling democracy could have crumbled into chaos.

Video: Obama speaks about ubuntu and empathy at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

But instead Mandela was the very embodiment of ubuntu, and South Africa’s peaceful transition was led by his great compassion, integrity and generosity of spirit.  Indeed the word ubuntu even appears in the Interim Constitution of South Africa: “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”.

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, US President Barack Obama said: “There’s a word in South Africa, ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift; his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye.”

After giving examples of Mandela’s compassion, Obama went on to say that “He not only embodied ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not only the prisoner, but the jailer as well”. 

Demond Tutu Explains Ubuntu

Video: a brief explanaition of ubuntu from Archbishop Desomnd Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu often speaks of the power of ubuntu. While chairing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Tutu noticed that people who had carried out the apartheid government’s foul policies ended up themselves being dehumanised.

Likewise when our humanity is enhanced, others are enhanced at the same time. “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

In that above video, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate talks about his dreams for a new world and a new humanity: a world where we live to our highest potential and see the potential of others.

And that is the spirit of ubuntu.