In conversation about ubuntu

by The Editor

SERIES: Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. Jacques Rousseau is a lecturer in critical thinking and ethics, as well as a columnist for the Daily Maverick and, in discussion with him, the series In Conversation will look to explore a key concept or development in a few email exchanges. We start with the idea of ubuntu – a notion that has quickly been elevated to the level of philosophy, although what it actually means remains the subject of much debate. Perhaps more to the point, is ubuntu a liberal idea? Or, at the very, least can it be reconciled with liberalism?

In Conversation

On ubuntu

20 March 2012

Dear Jacques,

It strikes me that the primary problems with the idea of ubuntu are two fold.

First, there is the problem of definition – it is amorphous – which thus opens the idea to abuse. For example, I was struck at the number of contrasting interpretations of the idea. Consider these two examples:

“Ubuntu, which reminds us that ‘a person is a person through other people’, does not allow for individualism that overrides the collective interests of a community. It stands in contra-distinction to the idea that an individual is the be-all and end-all, without, at the same time, positing that an individual is right-less or dispensable in the grand scheme of things.”

And this explanation:

“The principle of caring for each other’s well-being will be promoted, and a spirit of mutual support fostered. Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through his or her relationship with others and theirs in turn through a recognition of the individual’s humanity. Ubuntu means that people are people through other people. It also acknowledges both the rights and the responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being.”

The former is from President Thabo Mbeki (and would seem to negate a series of principles central to any liberal democracy); the latter, from the South African White Paper on Welfare which, while still problematic, would seem to be more of an attempt to try and merge collectivism and liberalism. But those two definitions certainly contradict each other.

Which brings me to the second problem, ubuntu’s elevation to the status of philosophy, because any attempt to define something brings one back to its foundational principles.

You will know better than me, can ubuntu be described as a philosophy? Does it meet the relevant criteria? It might sound flippant but it appears to me little more than a saying – akin to a ‘many hands make light work’ or ‘one swallow does not a summer make’ – a nice platitude, but hardly a philosophy.

Certainly I cannot see how collectivism and liberalism can be successfully merged in one ideology, they are mutually exclusive, aren’t they?


Dear Gareth,

The problem you raise regarding definition is certainly important, and one where I’d agree with your perspective on ubuntu. My instincts are always to eliminate redundant, vague or ambiguous usages, and it has certainly always seemed the case to me that ubuntu was a term that could mean various things to any particular person – or group of people. Which of course immediately opens a space for privileged definitions, and their consequent potential those definitions hold for stereotyping those who don’t share them as being unsympathetic to the concepts they gesture at.

A good definition includes all the cases that it should, and also excludes all the cases it should. What is the definition of ubuntu, then? According to Augustine Shutte, whose course in African philosophy I took during my undergraduate years, ubuntu could best be captured by the Nguni proverb “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (“a person is a person through other persons”).

Before the 1980’s and Shutte’s book “Philosophy for Africa”, most references to ubuntu describe it more generally as something ambiguous like “humanity”. But even the Shutte interpretation – never mind the more general ones – tells us little about what ubuntu means beyond some hand-waving at the concept that we are interconnected.

And of course we are, but difficult social and political issues rest precisely on questions of what form that interconnectedness takes, and when we should be free to disconnect ourselves from persons or groups of persons. So I’ve always understood ubuntu to be roughly on the same footing as a phrase like “the Rainbow Nation” – simply a metaphor for a way of living. Ubuntu, though, is bandied about as a political truism, much like people refer to “human rights” without interrogating what grounds them and whether they are indeed perhaps “nonsense on stilts”, as Bentham famously put it.

To put it more starkly, most usages of ubuntu are simple iterations of cliché. It’s an aspirational cliché, to be sure, but a cliché nonetheless – and certainly not a coherent philosophy.

Liberals – just like any other ideological set – are by and large not only forced to be part of a collective, but would nearly always choose to be so. And we all already know that how we treat others influences how they treat us. In this very broad sense, collectivism and liberalism are perfectly compatible. But if an emphasis on interconnectedness starts crowding out individual liberty (arguably, as in something like LeadSA’s Bill of Responsibilities), the conflict becomes clear. By contrast to liberalism, with its detailed expositions of the value of individual liberty, collectivism in the form of ubuntu certainly doesn’t persuade me. The parts I’d agree with are obvious, while the normative claims people make in its name are worrisome – and largely unsupported – appeals to the primacy of the group over the individual.


Dear Jacques,

Well, if its vague usage you would like to eliminate, consider this definition of ubuntu, from the South African Ubuntu Foundation:

“At its core Ubuntu reflects the deep spiritual truth that ‘We Are All One’ – one spiritual essence, one planetary life system, one human race, and one inter-dependent human community. Hence, our spiritual, moral, mental, social, physical, and economic bonds and mutual inter-dependence with others and the creatures in our environment are inherently deep and tangible – even though centuries of painful history and divisive ideologies have emphasised and magnified our differences, rather than our commonalities.”

I quite enjoyed the “deep spiritual truth” reference. And the Borg would have liked the “we are all one” line too.

That might seem humorous, but it masks a far more pervasive influence I think. Mbeki’s definition demonstrates the idea can be used to suppress individual rights and, while we might agree it is not a philosophy, there is every attempt in South Africa to elevate it to that status. Universities now have departments dedicated to ubuntu. Search the internet and there are a wealth of conferences and seminars established to discuss the idea. We have foundations – such as the South African Ubuntu Foundation and Desmond Tutu’s Foundation – which are solely focused on promoting the concept. And yet, while the definition you quote above is the generally accepted as the foundational one, what it means and how the idea is interpreted remains open to debate. And these are not subtle differences, but quite profound.

Then there is, of course, the word’s political use. It is one of those ideas which – like ‘transformation’ – seems to have become a sort of moral litmus test for the politically correct. If you are against ubuntu, you are by implication, against African culture, ‘Eurocentric’ or some such derogatory thing. Like many other words and ideas in South Africa today it is difficult to have a rational conversation about ubuntu, because it is so loaded.

The word transformation (equally ill-defined) has already found its way into much of our legislation, certainly it informs legislative decision-making, I wonder, should we be concerned that ubuntu too might end up formally influencing our laws and regulations?


Dear Gareth,

A nothing serves as well as a something about which nothing can be said, to paraphrase Wittgenstein. This comes immediately to mind when reading the South African Ubuntu Foundation’s definition, as it’s a lovely example of generalities presented as if they are meaningful, even though there’s frighteningly little content there. A purported “deep spiritual truth” grounds “deep and tangible” inter-dependence, where we somehow inform economics through metaphysics? Plus there’s the poisoning of the well against liberalism, which is surely one of the “divisive ideologies” referred to in that definition.

You’re absolutely right to be worried about the political use of ubuntu, and of course transformation. If a term is nebulous enough to be parlayed into various specific – and potentially worrisome – concrete definitions or even policies, that job becomes easier the more widely accepted the nebulous root idea is. And I think this presents quite a strategic challenge for liberals: we can easily appear to be hypersensitive or overly negative in complaining about words like ubuntu. People can ask what the issue is – how can we find it problematic that others are drawing attention to the value of community, or the importance of respecting the interests of other sentient beings? As you rightly point out, the accusation of being against African culture (and quite quickly, racist) is easy to level against us in this cases, regardless of the falsity of that accusation.

But as the example of transformation shows, it’s important to keep asking these questions, and to demand that decisions are made on principle rather than according to loosely-defined catchphrases. For example, transformation is often spoken about as a way to encourage diversity. And diversity can certainly have value, but we need to be clear on what form that diversity should take. In a racially segregated society, it might indeed be a good thing for people to be exposed to differences in culture and class (arguably the most salient features of “race”). But diversity of opinion is equally valuable, yet we seldom see that advanced as a key factor in hiring decisions. The point – as you allude to in noting the legislative presence of transformation – is that values compete, and we skew the competition by artificially advancing one value over others, and also by interpreting any given value in a partisan sort of way. More troublingly, the value of being fit for purpose can’t help but lose some force in the face of the elevation of these competing values.

Back to what I highlight as a strategic challenge above: I think it’s true that we need to be vigilant against the elevation of generalities into popular discourse, and certainly legislation. But is there a way to do this without appearing to always be engaging in negative carping? Or is that simply the lot that we have to bear, in an age of fast-food answers to complicated questions?


Dear Jacques,

Well I suppose that is its great attribute, at least politically – that it means everything and nothing. And yes, that is the challenge – to be critical without being painted as some sort of afro-pessimist. But that is just a political concern. I mean, intellectually and rationally, one has a duty to respond critically to a dubious idea. That, however, is something incredibly hard to do in South Africa’s politically correct environment, without paying the appropriate platitudes to your commitment to South Africa, non-racialism and ideas like ‘nation-building’.

I suppose one approach would be for liberals to promote those liberal alternatives to ubuntu. I use the word alternatives but, actually, they precede ubuntu, because they are ideals. In fact, this is an interesting point – one could well ask: what does ubuntu offer that ideas like tolerance, empathy and sympathy, along with other similar values and principles, do not already provide? In each case one could argue those separate ideas are also better defined and thus far more usefully employed when it comes to legislating for compassion. Each has a definitive nature, well understood and is easily communicated. Whereas ubuntu, as we have seen, because it is so amorphous, is open to manipulation; that is, if one could even agree on its primary meaning.

In fact, on reflection, it strikes me as odd indeed how little political capital these ideas have. When was the last time you heard a speech about empathy and why it is important? It is a critical value. Central to understanding the plight and circumstance of others yet, compared to an idea like ubuntu, almost non-existent in our democratic lexicon. Perhaps that is where the liberal cause should focus its attention?


Dear Gareth,

To act consistently, and on principle, is certainly a key virtue for all of us – whether in politics or elsewhere. But at the same time, I do think it’s possible to remain true to your principles while playing a more long-term game, involving attracting a sympathetic respose from potential supporters.

It might strike some as overtly cynical to suggest that a message (or a criticism, in this case) should be softened in order to gain public sympathy, but doing so might sometimes be a worthwhile option. In the case of something like ubuntu and its possible influence on legislation, our criticism could be focused mainly on any such legislation when (and if) it’s actually proposed – it’s lack of grounding in anything other than a ill-defined aspirational sentiment.

If the critical response to what you and I agree is a “dubious idea” comes with little reward besides the sense of righteous principle on the part of the critic, we need to consider whether the costs outweight those benefits. Of course, one could hope that these sorts of criticisms raise the level of public discourse – but I’m not sure I see convincing evidence of that occurring.

In fact, until the effects of a (hypothetical) significantly improved primary and secondary education system filters through into that discourse, I’m quite convinced that the battles most worth fighting are those involving pragmatic detail, rather than philosophical concepts. In the case of the latter, it seems a losing proposition to expend energy trying to get people to care for debate on something that – as far as they can see at least – makes no difference to their lives.

But perhaps they can make a difference as a unifying ideal, whether the ideal is a nebulous one or not. I think these grand narratives are attractive, and are perhaps more so in the absence of material security (of course, the reality for many South Africans). And instead of being associated with afro pessimism in denouncing the narratives of others, I’d strongly support your suggestion that liberals find their own – equally grand in scope, but more robust – principles to emphasise as virtues in this rhetorical space.

It would indeed be welcome to hear a speech on empathy, especially if it were to come from someone representing an ideology that many (unfairly) characterise as mostly concerned with individualism. Of course, such a speech runs the risk of being dismissed as insincere, and responding to those dismissals in an empathetic manner would be part of the challenge we face.


Jacques Rousseau is a lecturer in critical thinking and ethics at the School of Management Studies, University of Cape Town, and the founder and Chairman of the Free Society Institute, a South African non-governmental organisation dedicated to defending free speech and the secular viewpoint against threats presented by religion, bad science and other forms of irrationality. He writes a weekly column for the Daily Maverick, and has a weblog at or by clicking here.

Gareth van Onselen works as the Democratic Alliance’s Director of Political Analysis and Development, but writes in his personal capacity. He writes a column for the Business Day on ideas and what they mean from a liberal perspective. He is the Editor of Inside Politics.