A Policy of Ubuntu
June 16, 2018
Ubuntu is, for many younger adults and hipsters, just a software platform that helps them run programs on everything from a smart phone to a laptop or tablet. It has gained popularity because it is free and a community driven operating system that encourages sharing. Ubuntu is much more than that, however, and much older than any mechanical operating system.
Ubuntu came to the world stage in 1993 in 1993 when the negotiators of the South African Interim Constitution wrote: ‘there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.” This passage in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 200 of 1993: Epilogue after Section 251 was specifically addressing apartheid and the racial hierarchy and segregation that resulted from apartheid.
Ubuntu is a word common to several African cultures and each has its own way of defining it. It is a humanist concept and even the Interim Constitution did not specifically define it. Generally ubuntu refers to behaving well towards others or acting in ways that benefit the community. Such acts could be as simple as helping a stranger in need, or much more complex ways of relating with others. A person who behaves in these ways has ubuntu. He or she is a full person. Bishop Desmond Tutu explained: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in what is yours”.
There is a story that an anthropologist proposed a game while visiting a tribe in Africa. He tied a basket of fruit to a nearby tree and then told the children of the tribe that whoever reached the tree first could have all the fruit. The children quickly gathered hands and ran together. Once they reached the tree they sat down in a circle and shared the fruit. When asked why they did not elect to keep the fruit to themselves the anthropologist was told: “Ubuntu! How can one of us be happy if the rest are sad?”
Throughout history violence has been used as an answer. It is not. It is a cessation for a period of time but it solves no problem, just creates more. No illnesses have ever been cured by violence. No life-saving discoveries came from the firing of a weapon. No bomb ever aimed created more beautiful life.
The story of the children sitting in a circle should be a metaphor for all of mankind living on this planet. We may not seem to be sitting in a circle yet we live in a circle and what disastrous effects one experiences will eventually affect us all.
In 1995 the South African Constitutional Court ruled that ubuntu was important because “it was against the background of the loss of respect for human life and the inherent dignity which attaches to every person that a spontaneous call has arisen among section of the community for a return to ubuntu”. The recent “(insert here your special group) Lives Matter” campaign is a modern day American version of a call to ubuntu.
All life matters. In Zimbabwe the word for ubuntu is unhu. Unhu involves recognizing the humanity in another in order to have it in yourself. All are respected and treated as one would wish to be treated and the concept has many rules of what many might consider etiquette or tribal law. In Kinyarwanda, the mother tongue in Rwanda, and In Kirundi, the mother tongue in Burundi, ubuntu refers to human generosity and a spirit of humaneness or humanity. Runyakitara 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. In these dialects “obuntu” refers to the human characteristics of generosity, consideration and humane-ness towards others in the community. Luganda is the dialect of Central Uganda and its “obuntu-bulamu” refers to the same characteristics.
Basically, though, if you ask someone on the African continent what ubuntu is they will say it means “I am because we are.” Many Americans are experiencing much misery over recent policies requiring children be separated from their families because of their legal immigration status or lack thereof and we all have felt sad. The time has come, though, to dry our tears and respond with humanity and positive action. The world needs our generosity and kind treatment of others.
Such policies assume that the world can be divided into “them” and “us”. It cannot. While evil is calling for more terror, we need to send out a call for ubuntu, for kindness, for respect, for love, for life. Only ubuntu can make this ordinary time of Pentecost extraordinary. Only by living ubuntu will humanity defeat evil. Only when we realize that we truly are all brothers and sisters in the family of man and treat each other respectfully will the future be made possible for us all.