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Ubuntu, (pronounced|ùbúntú), is an ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people's allegiances and relations with each other. The word has its origin in the Bantu languages of Southern Africa. Ubuntu is seen as a traditional African concept.

Contents

Meaning

An attempt at a longer definition has been made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999): 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.

Louw (1998) suggests that the concept of ubuntu defines the individual in terms of their several relationships with others, and stresses the importance of ubuntu as a religious concept. He states that while the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu ("a person is a person through (other) persons") may have no apparent religious connotations in the context of Western society, in an African context it suggests that the person one is to become by behaving with humanity is an ancestor worthy of respect or veneration. Those who uphold the principle of ubuntu throughout their lives will, in death, achieve a unity with those still living.

In the promotional video for the Ubuntu Linux distribution, based around the same principles, Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows; 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. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you be able to improve?

Change in South Africa

Ubuntu is seen as one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa, and is connected to the idea of an African Renaissance. In the political sphere, the concept of ubuntu is used to emphasize the need for unity or consensus in decision-making, as well as the need for a suitably humanitarian ethic to inform those decisions.

The concept of ubuntu is illustrated in the film In My Country, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche.

Zimbabwe

In the Shona language, the majority spoken language in Zimbabwe after English, ubuntu is unhu. The concept of ubuntu is viewed the same in Zimbabwe as in other African cultures, and the Zulu saying is also common in Shona: munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu.

Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange (1980), highlights the three maxims of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism which shape this philosophy : The first maxim asserts that 'To be human is to affirm one's humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.' And 'the second maxim means that if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life'. The third 'maxim' as a 'principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy' says 'that the king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him'.

While sharing is incorporated within "unhu" it is only one of the multiplicity of virtues within "unhu". In the "unhu" domain, visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions — all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through without payment being expected. In fact, every individual should try their best to make visitors comfortable — and this applies to everyone who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality. This explains how David Livingstone survived on his journeys in Southern Africa especially among ubuntu-oriented societies of the time.

Other manifestations of ubuntu are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames. This has the effect of banishing individualism and replacing it with a representative role, in which the individual effectively stands for the people among whom he comes from at all times. The individual identity is replaced with the larger societal identity within the individual. Thus, families are portrayed or reflected in the individual and this phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions being portrayed in the individual. This places high demands on the individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the highest possible virtues that society strives for. "Unhu" embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.

A key concept associated with "unhu" is how we behave and interact in our various social roles, e.g., daughters-in-law traditionally kneel down when greeting their parents-in-law and serve them food as a sign of respect and maintain the highest standards of behaviour that will be extended or reflected to her family and all the women raised in that family. The daughter-in-law does this as part of the ambassadorial function that she plays and assumes at all times. However, this does not apply only to daughters-in-law but to all women in general, even among friends and equals such as brother and sister, and this does not imply that the woman is subordinate to the man, or sister to brother. Its all essentially considered to be a characteristic of having "unhu" and a social interaction within the context of "unhu". The demands imposed upon men within the context of "unhu" are more physically demanding than that placed upon the woman.

Under "unhu" children are never orphans since the roles of mother and father are by definition not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with "unhu" will never allow any child around him to be an orphan.

The concept of "unhu" also constitute the kernel of African Traditional Jurisprudence as well as leadership and governance. In the concept of unhu, crimes committed by one individual on another extend far beyond the two individuals and has far-reaching implications to the people among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes from. Unhu jurisprudence tend to support remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. For instance, a crime of murder would lead to the creation of a bond of marriage between the victim's family and the accused's family in addition to the perpetrator being punished both inside and outside his social circles. The role of "tertiary perpetrator" to the murder crime is extended to the family and the society where the individual perpetrator hails from. However, the punishment of the tertiary perpetrator is a huge fine and a social stigma, which they must shake off after many years of demonstrating "unhu" or "ubuntu". A leader who has "unhu" is selfless and consults widely and listens to his subjects. He or she does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from his subjects and lives among his subjects and shares what he owns. A leader who has "unhu" does not lead but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with "unhu".

Rwanda and Burundi

In Kinyarwanda, the mother tongue in Rwanda, and In Kirundi, the mother tongue in Burundi, ubuntu means, among other things, 'human generosity' as well as humanity (as above). In Rwanda and Burundi society it is common for people to exhort or appeal to others to "gira ubuntu" meaning to "have consideration and be humane" towards others.

Uganda and Tanzania

In Runyakitara which is the collection of dialects spoken by the Banyankore, Banyoro, Batooro and Bakiga of Western Uganda and also the Bahaya, Banyambo and others of Northern Tanzania, "obuntu" refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humane-ness towards others in the community. In Luganda, the dialect of Central Uganda "obuntu-bulamu" refers to the same characteristics.

Other uses

The "Ubuntu" Linux computer operating system is inspired by the concept, arguing that it "brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world." (Ubuntu: Linux for Human Beings Ubuntu: Code of Conduct)

Former US president Bill Clinton used the term at the 2006 Labour Party conference in the UK to explain why society is important.

Ubuntu is also the founding philosophy of Ubuntu Education Fund, an NGO working with orphans and vulnerable children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Ubuntu Education Fund http://www.ubuntufund.org

The Boston Celtics, an NBA team, have chanted "ubuntu" when breaking a huddle since the start of the 2007-2008 season.

Ubuntu Cola is a soft drink made with Fairtrade sugar from Malawi and Zambia.

Further reading

  • Matshe, Getrude. Born On The Continent - Ubuntu. (self-published)
  • HUNHUISM OR UBUNTUISM: A ZIMBABWE INDIGENOUS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. BY Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange AND S. SAMKANGE. 106PP. GRAHAM PUBLISHING, HARARE, 1980. ISBN 0869210157. PAPERBACK