UBUNTU Are we fooling ourselves?

How do economies and ideas interact? Is ‛rugged individualism’ typical of people in the US, and is it related to a supposed spirit of enterprise, self-reliance and hard work? Do the Japanese act according to a national spirit of formality and discipline? These are crude caricatures, yet ubuntu, the spirit of communal care and mutual reliance, said to be characteristic of African people, is often portrayed as a cornerstone of life in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. DR ANDREA HURST of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s paper on ‛The knowledge economy in an ethical context: autonomy and ubuntu’ led to a vigorous debate on ubuntu as it does, or does not, affect attitudes to work and enterprise.




‘Ubuntu is the capacity in African culture to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interests of building and maintaining community.

Ubuntu calls on us to believe and feel that: Your pain is my pain,
My wealth is your wealth,
Your salvation is my salvation.

In essence ubuntu … addresses our interconnectedness, our common humanity, and the responsibility to each other that flows from our connection.

Barbara Nussbaum, from Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African on Our Common Humanity, Reflections, 4, 4 (2003): 21.

We have been brought to the brink of disaster by current economic practices, Hearst argued. If the ‛knowledge economy’ is to mean anything, it must be more than just putting information technology to work in the interests of our economic system as it is now. It should be much wider, less purely technocratic, and part of an ethos that includes the social sciences, humanities and, centrally, ethics.

The premise of ubuntu

Ubuntu involves three core values, according to Hearst. People come first, which means that resources become things for humans to use. People should live within communities where they understand one another, and even when there are disagreements there is general assent to social rules. There should be social solidarity, with teamwork the ideal, and avoidance of opposition and conflict. An approach with these values could guide an ethical economy, according to some South African philosophers.

But is this possible? Has ubuntu the potential to support a more humane, collaborative society, while also enabling the economic development that seems necessary for the dignified, secure life that South Africans desire?

Hearst left the question open. Ubuntu promotes group solidarity, she said, but at the cost of suppressing individual difference and constraining the mavericks who are likely to do the unusual and unexpected. It thus encourages a static society suspicious of the innovators who may be the key to economic development. However, what some participants called ‛disaster capitalism’ is hardly an attractive alternative.

Can new ways be found of tolerating and even encouraging the difference and enterprise necessary in a complex modern society, while enabling the emergence of ‛rich human beings’? Might such people emerge from new, more humanistic ‛knowledge economies’? Might ubuntu be part of this process?

Get real, one participant said. Ubuntu perpetuates the myth of African collectivity, first proposed by romantic anthropologists looking for village Edens in Africa. If this vision ever had any basis in reality, it is long gone. Now, the idea links blackness, poverty and supposed collectivism under this neo-traditional slogan, which, if anything, tends to lock people further into poverty. It does not even reflect reality: far from being naturally collaborative, people are in some ways almost ungovernably quarrelsome and assertive, and this individualistic aspect of African life needs to be acknowledged and studied more seriously than it has been.

This is too sweeping, said another. Ubuntu is a useful term that describes relations between humans, and between humans and the environment, focusing usefully on inter-connectedness, interdependence and inter-relationships. A.C. Jordan’s 1940 isiXhosa classic, Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (The Wrath of the Ancestors), is saturated with such a spirit.

Others debated the possibilities that ubuntu might present in modern South African society. Comparing collective solidarity to individualism is a false juxtaposition: these tendencies both exist and are used together or separately, according to circumstances. And are its limits not demonstrated when, no matter how long arguments continue, agreement cannot be reached? What answer does ubuntu have to this?

Is there anything specifically African about ubuntu apart from the name in any case? Is it not an Africanisation of a universal idea? In fact, elements of the idea may already exist in the most technologically advanced parts of modern societies, and are functional to them, another speaker said.

Although ideas similar to ubuntu can lend themselves to a rigid, static approach, they can and perhaps have been reconfigured and related to complexity. Modern sites of creativity tend in fact to operate on a model that incorporates both competition and collaboration. It is a distortion to imagine that cooperation and ‛talking until we agree’ is completely foreign to technologically advanced societies. Is ubuntu alive and well and living in Silicon Valley?