Ubuntu is an African philosophy that captures the essence of what it means to live in harmony with our physical, social and spiritual environment across times of peace, uncertainty, birth, life and death.
The African term Ubuntu means humanism. Humanism is a fundamental concern for the human condition, a caring for fellow human beings with respect to their well-being, but it also describes openness, hospitality and compassion for those in need.
“You know [ubuntu] when it is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, it refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to being available for others and to know that you are bound up with them in this bundle of life, for a person is only a person through other persons.” – Desmond Tutu
At the heart of this philosophy is the belief that we are all one with each other, nature, and the Creator.
In societies that embodied the philosophy, ubuntu became the basis for the identity, respect and self confidence for the individual, and a foundation for leadership, problem solving, and decision making as a group.
The 4 Principles of Ubuntu
The African philosophy of ubuntu is built on four principles:
- participatory decision making, leadership, and patriotism;
- umoja and collectivism;
- reconciliation as a goal of conflict management;
Unity of the Community
Your friend‘s child is your own child – African Proverb
Communitarianism is a critical component of African philosophy that emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to the community and the social importance of the family unit. Since ubuntu emphasizes oneness, the group – not the individual – is the fundamental unit of political, social, and economic concern.
This stands in stark contrast to individualism; the Western value that emphasizes a person should think, act, and judge independently, respecting nothing more than the sovereignty of his or her mind.
African philosophy held that children belonged to the entire community instead of to individual parents.
Not only did this mean that any child could be disciplined by any adult in the community, it also meant that children always had a place to go. ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunties’ fed, sheltered, and watched over children with the same sense of responsibility that biological Mothers and Fathers did.
Children in such societies were rarely if ever compromised, preyed upon, or exploited. And these children were taught to respect all adults the same way they respected their parents with the understanding that each adult in the group had the best interest of the child at heart.
Each child was taught their origins, their family history and they were encouraged to know and visit all members of the extended family, even those that were staying far away. People were continually reminded to respect their origins and identity by not abandoning their cultural values and practices, no matter where they went in the world.
And when those children were initiated through the age-ranks, the group that went through the trials of initiation together became brothers
and sisters for life — as strong a bond as a blood relationship.
Compare that with western schools today that rarely produces such an effect on classmates. And as those children grew into adults, they continued the practice of raising the children of the village as if they were his or her own.
When a new couple came together to start a family, the entire community came together to build their house for them. Naming ceremonies for newborn children were community events. Harvest times meant that everyone ate, and land was held in common. When a person died, the funeral was a community funeral.
Those in privileged positions took it as their responsibility to help the less privileged to rise to positions of privilege as well, living by the saying that ”a lit candle loses nothing by lighting another candle‘ (Source). They were therefore not expected to be jealous of others rising to positions of privilege as well.
When it came to work, the African philosophy of ubuntu maintained that each person lend their labor toward the well-being of the group according to his or her age, knowledge, skills and experience. Parasites and freeloaders were not tolerated, and only the very young, the old and the incapacitated were exempt.
The Myth of the God King
In his paper titled Learning Leadership Development from African Cultures: A Personal Perspective, Chiku Malunga writes “At first glance, indigenous African leadership appears automatic and autocratic. Even though some were born into royalty, the approval of the people was critical for the legitimacy of a newly elected leader. The accountability of leaders was reinforced because there were many possible candidates for leadership, so strict criteria were applied to determine who would emerge as a leader.” (Source)
The first consideration was the Mother of the candidate. We know from The Destruction of Black Civilization that the bloodline of the Mother – not the Father – was the qualifying factor for any would be leader. For if the Mother was not one of the people, the child could not claim legitimate authority.
Once the maternal lineage of the Candidate was verified, the decision was often subject to the approval of the people. To emerge as a leader candidates had to show competence in:
- understanding people and human nature;
- understanding human relationships, conflicts and how to manage them;
- diplomacy and relationships with other Regents;
- the art of war;
- strategic thinking; and
- kingdom secrets and how to guard them.
And even when a new Regent was elevated, in many societies they did not exercise unlimited power. Decision making was democratic and inclusive. Again, from the Destruction of Black Civilization:
“It was so well understood that supreme power rested in the people that it was never thought necessary to state such a fact. Likewise, they would say, and say proudly, the Regent “owns all the land in the country [as the custodian and overseer], whose principal duty being to see that the land was fairly distributed among all families.
Finally, nothing contributed more to the efficiency and success of self-government without governors than the system wherein each age grade was responsible for the conduct of its members, and that before any misconduct could reach one’s age-grade council it was handled by his family council.
This never meant leniency. It meant the very opposite, because each family was jealous of its honor and image in the community, and any of its members whose behavior reflected unfavorably on the family were in trouble with their own family first of all.
The result of this was that each family and age group policed itself, so that there was little or nothing that the community as a whole had to do. Each group elected its own leaders who met with other age grade leaders on community matters that cut across age-grade lines.
It was therefore in the societies without chiefs or kings where African democracy was born and where the concept that the people are sovereign was as natural as breathing.”
In his book Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes the profound influence that the democratic decision making processes of the Thembu people (of which his grandfather was chief) had on him:
“Everyone who wanted to speak could do so. It was democracy in its purest sense. There may have been a hierarchy of importance amongst the speakers, but everyone was heard … Only at the end of the meeting as the sun was setting would the Regent speak. His purpose was to sum up what had been said and form some consensus among the diverse opinions. But no conclusion was forced on those who disagreed.” – Long Walk To Freedom pp. 18-19
While the Regent was the most visible leader, other highly respected religious leaders or Elders advised the them in roles that promoted democracy in the Kingdom.
Rulers appeared very powerful from outside, but they were kept under strict control by means of taboos, institutions, and officials whose main occupation was the protection and safeguarding of the people, the ancestors, the land and the unborn.
Indigenous leadership, therefore, was not comprised solely of the authority of the ruler, but was influenced by queen mothers, godfathers, councils, secret societies, mystics, rituals, ceremonies, rules and citizens. The Regent’s decisions and policies were continually subject to review by others.
Among the Bantus, a Council of Elders often played a key governance role in the kingdom in the following ways:
Custodianship of the Regency. The Elders were concerned with the welfare of the land, the living, the ancestors and the unborn. Individual Regents could come and go but the Council was a permanent structure.
Advising the Regent. The Regent would use the Council as a sounding board for his ideas and critical issues facing the kingdom. For example, on the occasion of identifying his or her successor, the chief would propose the name to the council who would discuss the issue and give their feedback.
Managing conflicts and disputes on behalf of the king in courts. The chief only listened while the council dealt with the cases. After a case was concluded, the council would meet with the Regent to give them their view. The chief would examine it against what s/he had heard. They then would come up with a joint stand and the chief would announce the judgement.
Managing the transition from one Regent to the next. The council had to approve an identified candidate and mentor and coach them. If the Regent suddenly died, the council managed the transition to the next leader by putting in place an interim ruler while initiating a process to identify the permanent ruler.
Installing and dethroning Regents. The council had the power with the mandate of the people to dethrone a Leader whom they felt ”had gone astray‘ or was leading the kingdom astray. They would ask the Leader to resign, or they would ask him or her to voluntarily ”drink poison‘ to make way for a new Regent. This was a rare occurrence, however, because the selection process for the Regent ensured, as far as possible, the prevention of such eventualities.
Proposing new laws and changing laws that had become obsolete. Officially, the chief was accountable to the gods through the council. The Regent could only overrule the proposals of the Council if he sensed that the council was in error. When this happened, the Regent had to give adequate explanation for his decision in order to convince the Council, and this had to be accepted by the wider population.
At the core of any Leader’s function was caring for the well-being of the many, and maintaining the unity of the group.
‘Unity Over Self’ – Umoja and Collectivism
Across the African Diaspora, the group and the kingdom came first in all decisions – that included before personal interests. An individual or ruler, no matter how loved, no matter how popular or interesting, was never more important than the success and survival of the kingdom itself.
The citizens were taught this from their childhoods into old age. They respected the need for a common bond of security in the form of a united nation, and they would not allow anything to endanger the security of the clan.
People inside of the clan could – and often would – disagree and argue with one another, but people outside the clan were not allowed to take advantage through collusion with the disgruntled members.
In every case where this discipline was not observed, it led to the destruction of the kingdom. Black history is filled with disgruntled traitors who left back doors open for the enemy to invade. And the practice of using disgruntled members of a group to destroy the group itself is well documented.
It is for this reason that law and reconciliation formed an important part of ubuntu culture.
Reconciliation And Resolution Instead Of Mass Incarceration
When it came to conflict management, African philosophy emphasized the values of trust, fairness and reconciliation. This was closely linked with the importance of relationships.
Conflict mediation and keeping relationships in tact was one of the most important roles of the Regent and the council. In conflict management, the council members arrived at decisions through consensus, though the judgement was made by the Regent after listening to the position taken by the council.
Patriotism was demonstrated by the people, who were duty-bound to attend court hearings and to make sure that laws were upheld. And since all citizens held collective responsibility, everyone had a right to question in an open court. Openness and transparency was an important value, since our ancestors believed that no one should be punished for anything correctly said in an open forum.
Conflict was managed through a systematic hierarchy of levels. At family or household levels, clan leaders were responsible for resolving conflict. At the higher levels, different levels of representatives of the Regent were responsible. The gravity or seriousness of the conflict determined the level at which it would be dealt with. Only very big cases would therefore reach the king‘s or the queen‘s court.
The goal of all conflict mediation was reconciliation and relationship building. The notion of ubuntu emphasised the importance of peacemaking through principles of reciprocity, inclusively and a sense of shared destiny between people.
It provided a value system that placed giving and receiving forgiveness at its center.
Ubuntu Philosophy Is Not Perfect, But Its Better Than What We Have Now
Ubuntu is far from a cure all to our modern problems, and the philosophy has its fair share of critics outside of the Black Conscious community.
For instance, when it comes to the ubuntu practice of giving every adult authority over every child in the community, critics argue that such behavior is dangerous in today’s society – and they may be right.
Child predators, racist teachers, and ruthless police have led parents to teach children to regard every adult near them with suspicion.
But this argument emphasizes, rather than discredits, the need for ubuntu.
In a society that emphasizes a person should think, act, and judge independently, respecting nothing more than the sovereignty of his or her mind it is easy to see how an individual can justify treating an ‘other’ with contempt.
Without a sense of collective responsibility, individuals will act out against others in ways they would not had they a stronger sense of kinship.
Another criticism suggests that African philosophy works well at the village and community level, but when it comes to large and complex modern societies, ubuntu becomes unscalable.
A third criticism suggests that ubuntu is a “socialist” concept, and according to some Western economists, Socialism does not work because it is inconsistent with what capitalists believe are the fundamental principles of human behavior. Socialism, Capitalists argue, removes the incentive for individuals to work, since resources are collected and distributed by a central government.
But this is not the ubuntu approach to work and welfare, as we have discussed as a matter of Communitarianism.
- loyalty to kinship may develop into tribalism;
- the belief in chiefs and kings ruling for life could lead to leaders not respecting term limits in office;
- the value of respect for elders may lead to a blind loyalty to old ideas that may have stopped working;
- the desire for ”continuity or survival of the village or clan‘ may undermine the need for radical change in response to rapidly changing task environments.
And the scalability of a Communitarian based economy is more possible than every with technology.
In a world of mass incarceration, white supremacy, western values, and cultural warfare, the Black community needs ubuntu more than ever.