The traditional African concept of ubuntu is one that encompasses the best that the people of Africa have to offer in terms of social harmony. It has come into play several times during difficult periods of nation building as African countries have gained independence and moved toward democracy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, served as Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the nation of South Africa transitioned from Apartheid to democracy. Rather than seeking revenge and the punishment of those who had supported Apartheid, or attempting to achieve some sort of national amnesia through blanket amnesty, the South Africans chose a third alternative. Amnesty would be granted only to those who admitted what had been done in the past. While some were concerned that such an option would allow crimes to go unpunished, the deep spirit of humanity that is ubuntu can lead to being magnanimous and forgiving.
Ubuntu…speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu”; “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. (pg. 31, Tutu, 1999)
Samkange and Samkange (1980) discuss how extensively ubuntu (aka, hunhu, depending on the language) is intertwined with life amongst the people of Zimbabwe. It leads to a sense of deep personal relationship with all members of different tribes related by the marriage of two individuals. It has influenced the development of nations as they achieved freedom from colonial governments, and it encourages amicable foreign policies. Ubuntu can help to guide judicial proceedings, division of resources, aid to victims of war and disaster, and the need to support free education for all people. The special characteristic that ubuntu imparts on African people can also be seen among the African diaspora, those Africans who have been displaced from their homeland. For example, Black Americans typically have something unique that distinguishes them from White Americans, something called “soul.” According to Samkange and Samkange (1980) “soul is long suffering (“Oh Lord, have mercy”); soul is deep emotion (“Help me, Jesus”) and soul is a feeling of oneness with other black people.” As a result of the Black American’s experience with slavery, we now have soul food, soul music, and soul brothers.
It has been suggested that the essence of personality among African people has given something special to members of the African diaspora known as “soul.” However, this may be a characteristic of all dispossessed people. Have you seen examples of this sort of “soul?” If yes, what was the experience like, and how did it affect your own views of life?
Although ubuntu is uniquely African, the peace and harmony associated with it can be experienced by all people. According to Archbishop Tutu it is the same spirit that leads to worldwide feelings of compassion and the outpouring of generosity following a terrible natural disaster, or to the founding of an institution like the United Nations, and the signing of international charters on the rights of children and woman, or trying to ban torture, racism, or the use of antipersonnel land mines (Tutu, 1999). Though ubuntu itself may belong to Africa, the essence of it is something shared by all dispossessed groups around the world (Mbigi & Maree, 1995). It embodies a group solidarity that is central to the survival of all poor communities, whether they are inner city ghettos in the West, or poor rural communities in developing countries. According to Mbigi and Maree (1995), the key values of ubuntu are group solidarity, conformity, compassion, respect, human dignity, and collective unity. They believe that African organizations need to harness these ubuntu values as a dynamic transformative force for the development of African nations and the African people. Samkange and Samkange share that view:
…ubuntuism permeates and radiates through all facets of our lives, such as religion, politics, economics, etc…Some aspects of hunhuism or ubuntuism are applicable to the present and future as they were in the past…It is the duty of African scholars to discern and delineate hunhuism or ubuntuism so that it can, when applied, provide African solutions to African problems. (pg. 103; Samkange & Samkange, 1980)