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I am because you are

For many people in the Bantu language countries of Africa, the term Ubuntu/botho encapsulates all the qualities of a respected member of society. But the term is also used by Africanist scholars as a critique of colonialist doctrine and even forms the core of a humanist ideology upon which the new democratic South Africa is constructed.

Michael Onyebuchi Eze 

Ask anyone on the streets of Harare, Johannesburg, Lusaka or Lilongwe (in Southern and Eastern Africa) what they understand by Ubuntu/botho and they will probably list the virtues to which a person in these societies is expected to aspire – such as compassion, generosity, honesty, magnanimity, empathy, understanding, forgiveness and the ability to share. Indeed, Ubuntu/botho (or the local equivalent in the various Bantu language groups)1 is understood as the very definition of ‘person’ or ‘personhood’. But the term Ubuntu/botho impregnates societies in the region to a much greater extent, forming the basis for communitarian ethics, discourses on identity and even a bourgeoning pan-African ideology. 

In terms of contemporary Africanist discourse, though, Ubuntu/botho is best understood as a critique of the logic of colonialism – the process of attempting to “humanize” or “civilize” non-Western cultures through colonization. Colonialism was a powerful and condescending narrative that thrived through a pretext of “humanizing” or “civilizing” non-Western peoples. The consequences of this false doctrine of humanism were to become the bedrock of colonial practices in Africa, as an institutionalized form of social Darwinism nurtured by racialist capitalism. 

Racialist capitalism is a theory in which a person’s race determines his or her life choices or potential, like the kind of job to have, where to live, the kind of person to marry, the kind of school to attend, and so on. The effects of this theory on the South African experience can be seen in the many draconian laws aimed at curbing the potentialities of the black person. This system motivated the 1913 Land Act that forbade blacks from buying lands in South Africa; the colour bar of 1918; the Bantu Education Act of 1953 which abolished the teaching of African history; the job Reservation Act which gave priority to whites in matters of employment; the various segregation policies from as early as 1907 that restricted the movement of blacks and reduced them to mere instruments of labour.

As early as 1858, the South African-Boer constitution had already ruled out any form of equality between blacks and whites in matters of State or Church. The prevailing argument was that forced labour was ordained by God as a divine privilege for the white race to claim authority of domination over blacks, as the then president of the South-African Republic, Paul Kruger, informed his Volksraad [Peoples’ Council] in August 1897 – “Our constitution wants no equality and equality is also against the Bible, because social classes were also applied by God.” And, later, in his Memoirs, he wrote: “…where there were only a handful of white men to keep hundreds of thousands of blacks in order, severity was essential. The black man had to be taught that he came second, that he belongs to the inferior class which must obey and learn.” 

This mindset would form the political blueprint for South Africa’s colonial history and was the foundation upon which the new South Africa gained national sovereignty. But if the South African colonial state had been founded upon the ideology of social Darwinism, what should be the ideological foundation of the new, democratic, independent state? This is where Ubuntu/botho comes in. 

As a public discourse, Ubuntu/botho has gained recognition as a peculiar form of African humanism, encapsulated in the following Bantu aphorisms, like Motho ke motho ka batho babang; Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other people). In other words, a human being achieves humanity through his or her relations with other human beings. But this understanding does not need to generate an oppressive structure, where the individual loses his or her autonomy in an attempt to maintain a relationship with an ‘other’. 

Many Africanist scholars would describe Ubuntu/botho as an arbitrary communitarian ethics that admits the individual’s good and welfare only as a secondary necessity. But a critical reading of this condition of relationship to others might suggest that a person’s humanity flourishes through a process of relation and distance, of uniqueness and difference. A realization of the subjective gifts (of humanity) we bear to each other motivates an unconditional desire to view and harness other people’s uniqueness and difference, not as a threat but as a complement to one’s own humanity. The Christian African philosopher, J. S. Mbiti’s now classic phrase, “I am, because we are; and since we are therefore I am”, captures a key feature of this kind of subjective formation through relation and distance. Mbiti subscribes to an affirmation of human subjectivity that puts communitarian good before individual good. I disagree, however, with this prioritizing of the community over the individual. Neither is prior. The relation with the ‘other’ is one of subjective equality, where the mutual recognition of our different but equal humanity opens the door to unconditional tolerance and a deep appreciation of the ‘other’ as an embedded gift that enriches one’s humanity.

A unifying ideology?

Within the contemporary history of South Africa, there are three main ways in which Ubuntu has been understood:

First is the assumption that Ubuntu is merely an anachronistic philosophy produced by African academics. Here Ubuntu functions as an alternative narrative to replace colonial logic, a desperate discourse of identity – a sledgehammer kind of ethics that helps us to deal with the traumas of modernity and globalization. The argument is that, since we cannot positively identify Ubuntu as an authentic historical culture, it remains an invented discourse, in an alien format. Being ‘invented’, Ubuntu is more or less an ‘empty concept’ through which Africanist academics perform a supple manoeuvre of identity formation using an ‘imported’ cultural nationalism. Evidence is sought from different African cultural traditions to homogenize a range of values that are then represented as Ubuntu. Ubuntu is thus generalized as a universal African value, irrespective of the actual historical context of the societies that practice it. However, Ubuntu does not need to generate a homogenous historicity3 to become an authentic African value. And neither does a lack of historical authenticity deprive Ubuntu of such normative legitimacy. 

The second conjecture is that Ubuntu has the character of an ideology, appropriated for political ends, as was evident in its application during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and the initial draft constitution of South Africa. As an ideology it can be applied as a ‘magic wand’ to deal with every emergent social crisis. And as an ideology, its usage can also be abused and ceases to be an ethical value, becoming a value-commodity which is then appropriated to create a positive corporate or brand image, as in ‘Ubuntu security’, ‘Ubuntu restaurant’, ‘Ubuntu linux’, ‘Ubuntu cola’, etc. 

The third sequence is a vision of history in which Ubuntu/botho is considered within the historical context in which it emerged. Being historical, it also gains an emotional and ethical legitimacy, since it is signified as a good that remains internal to the practices of a community where Ubuntu/botho values are invoked. 

The question, then, is whether Ubuntu/botho, construed as an ideology, precludes all possibilities of creative historicity?4 My answer is no! The context in which Ubuntu/botho emerged (even as an ideology) in the political history of South Africa was an attempt to configure a theory of political succession that is consistent with the vision of an emergent national imaginary. Irrespective of its doubtful origins, the moment at which Ubuntu/botho became a public virtue that is easily recognized by all South Africans, constitutes its historicity. The lack of authentic historical origins (in written records, or as a nuanced cultural dogma) does not neutralize its credibility.

Understood as a narrative of a new national consciousness, Ubuntu not only offers an emotional legitimacy to displace the old political order; it also gives the new political order a sense of identity and political purpose. While the old order thrived on a notion of citizenship based on discrimination and difference, the new regime attempted to gain legitimacy by trying to forge a notion of democratic citizenship that thrives through inclusion and civic virtues. But the new dispensation has to be based on a system that excludes the oppressive structures of the past, and adopts instead a system of values that is built on a notion of rights and the unconditional dignity of the human person. At this point, the ‘notion’ of Ubuntu assumes an ethical character in forging a new sense of national identity. 

Critics of the use of Ubuntu as a unifying ideology argue that it is merely an incoherent, invented ethics with no history. But ideologies do not predate history; they emerge as a response to specific issues within a historical epoch, challenging, correcting or displacing a mindset (or old ideology). The challenge, then, is to see whether Ubuntu can be rehabilitated as an ideology, focusing primarily on its normative essence, or whether the lack of historicity will always deny it any real substance. 

At the same time, the practice of the human virtues through which a Bantu becomes a Munhu, Umuntu, or a Muntu (etc) is not external, but internal to the context where it is practiced. Yet, Ubuntu has been able to transcend this moral relativism by generating an ethical practice, which all South Africans, irrespective of their socio-cultural background, have judged to be good. This evaluative norm was to become the inspiration for building the new South Africa, guarded by the need for reconciliation and not division; forgiveness, not resentment; understanding, not vengeance; and ubuntu, not victimization (see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Documents of South Africa). These were time-honoured values to which most South Africans already aspired, paving the way for a new national imaginary. And this gives Ubuntu its moral authority. 

Michael Onyebuchi Eze

 A Nigerian-American visiting research scholar at the Center for African Studies at Stanford University (USA), Michael Onyebuchi Eze  received his PhD in Intellectual History from Universität Witten-Herdecke (Germany) and taught African studies at the universities of Augsburg and Frankfurt. He is author of two books, The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa and Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa (PalgraveMacmillan, 2010).