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11.10.2008

Ubuntu definition is: a person is a person through other persons. 

Long before European settlers spread into the area around the southern edge of Africa, a proud nation of black people called the Xhosa lived there.
These people were considered to be savages by many of the settlers, but they had a highly developed social structure based on traditional values, which had evolved over thousands of years.


The foundation of this structure was embodied in the single word: Ubuntu — a word with no English equivalent. One definition is: a person is a person through other persons.

The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an extraordinary man of Xhosa descent, has described the meaning of ubuntu in a few of his books.

You know when ubuntu is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, to know that you are bound up with others in the bundle of life.

…It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.

They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanise them.

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“God Has A Dream” © 2004 Published by Doubleday

Ubuntu - African Philosophy

Ubuntu, a Bantu word, defines what it means to be truly human. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.
Perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place if more emphasis was placed instead on teaching respect, decency, and tolerance, on teaching Ubuntu.

What is Ubuntu?

The word ´Ubuntu´ originates from one of the Bantu dialects of Africa, and is pronounced as uu-Boon-too.

It is a traditional African philosophy that offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world. According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities. Or as the Zulus would say, "Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu", which means that a person is a person through other persons.
We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.

The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as:

"It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them."

Religious Aspect of Ubuntu:

For many Africans, while they may belong to different societies and have different traditions and rituals, Ubuntu usually has a strong religious meaning. In general, the African belief is that your ancestors continue to exist amongst the living in the form of spirits and they are your link to the Divine Spirit. If you are in distress or need, you approach your ancestors´ spirits and it is they who will intercede on your behalf with God. Therefore it is important to not only venerate your ancestors, but to, eventually, yourself become an ancestor worthy of veneration. For this, you agree to respect your community´s rules, you undergo initiation to establish formal ties with both the current community members and those that have passed on, and you ensure harmony by adhering to the Ubuntu principles in the course of your life.

Political Aspect of Ubuntu:

Since the downfall of Apartheid in South Africa, Ubuntu is often mentioned in the political context to bring about a stronger sense of unity.

On 19 February 1997, the South African National Assembly passed the White Paper For Social Welfare, and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Minister for Welfare and Population Development, announced:

"The passage of the White Paper for Social Welfare through the National Assembly signals the start of a new era in welfare delivery in South Africa. For the first time in our country´s history delivery in the welfare field will be driven by key principles such as democracy, partnership, ubuntu, equity, and inter-sectoral collaboration, among others."

The policy of Ubuntu is explained in the White Paper, published in August 1997, in Point 24 of Chapter 2. National Developmental Social Welfare Strategy -

"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."

It is not perfect, however. Ubuntu – which stresses on allowing every individual to have their equal say in any discussion and on ultimately reaching an agreement acceptable to all – could lead to conformist behavior in order to achieve solidarity. It seems a trifle ironic that Group Politics and the Herd Mentality – the human qualities common to us all, in fact - could derail the quest for the common goal.

Social Aspect of Ubuntu:

Still, as they say, the good points outweigh the shortcomings.

Given the vast racial, cultural, religious, educational, and socio-economic differences apparent not just in South-African society but the world over currently, the concept of Ubuntu is really rather relevant. It is far too easy to go into the ´us and them´ mode. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of judging a different people by our standards or by sticking to certain established stereotypical notions. If you instead regard someone as a fellow human being, all individual quirks and differences taken into account, there is perhaps a greater chance of achieving understanding.

And, achieving understanding is important and necessary, because, like it or not, we are all interconnected. What hurts you could one day come around and hurt me. What benefits me, if I´m not too selfish about it, could make a crucial difference in your life. And knowing you could bring a world of meaning and interest in mine.

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The significance of ubuntu in the development of an ANC cadre
By Nombeko Liwane

Ubuntu (botho, human dignity) is a figure of speech that describes the importance of group solidarity on issues that were pivotal to the survival of the African communities, who as a consequence of poverty and deprivation have to survive through group care and not only individual reliance (Mbigi and Maree, 1995).
However, collective unity is not something new or peculiar to Africa.

Universally all marginalised communities in places like Harlem in New York, Brixton in the United Kingdom, subscribe to this concept of Ubuntu. It is a concept of brotherhood or sisterhood and collective unity for survival among the poor in every society. Ubuntu plays a significant role in our value system for it derives specifically from African mores: "I am human, because you are human" (Manifesto on Values, Education and Democracy, 2001:16).

In an article entitled "Finding the lost generation," Valerie Moller suggests "Social cohesion has disappeared. Great waves of social, political and economic upheaval have changed the moral landscape and often destroyed the network of ethical values and norms that provided social cohesion and control". This means that in order to resuscitate the concept of Ubuntu especially at the work place, we need to be united and strengthen our work relationship. It is also essential to inculcate the notion of work ethic and self esteem.

The concept of Ubuntu is crucial to nation building, for example, urban renewal in the ghetto or inner cities of the West as well as community development in rural and peri-urban situations in developing countries. It is universal because it can be applied to the challenge of empowering marginalised minorities.
The cardinal belief of Ubuntu is that a person can only be a person through the help of others, which means umntu ngumntu ngabanye abantu in Xhosa.

This fundamental concept stands for personhood and morality. The important values of Ubuntu are group solidarity, conformity, compassion, respect, human dignity and collective unity. All and sundry know that charity begins at home. Respect is reciprocal irrespective of race, ethnicity, class, age, and gender. Ubuntu requires one to respect others if one is to respect him or herself.

African people are collectively united by their religious experience. It is entrenched and pervasive in virtually all aspects of their lives on daily basis. That is why it is vital that conceptual frameworks of strategy and ideas must try and make reference to the African religious and cultural experiences if effective transfer and adaptation are to take place. It is imperative to translate all the essential ideas and practices from the foreign language into the relevant local languages.

The spirit of patriotism is also an important part of Ubuntu. That means there is a readiness to sacrifice for one´s group, something, which is inculcated in the minds of the activists and nationalist movements. The spirit was a transformative force in the union movement and the mass democratic movement in this country. That is why Mbigi and Maree (1995:8) assert "South Africa owes the birth of its nation to the emancipating spirit of Ubuntu. It drives the national change process towards national liberation and majority rule, but not sufficiently to meet the challenges of reconstruction and development."

Mbigi and Maree (1995) suggest that we are faced with the challenge of building into the spirit of Ubuntu, "a new dimension of citizenship." He contends that, "This is the ability to live for one´s country; the ability to take personal accountability and responsibility for improving one´s situation." Perhaps this is the missing link and dimension of Ubuntu in post-independent Africa.

Our people´s dignity has been denigrated by the indignity of Apartheid.

That implies that as a part of the healing process of reconciliation, organisations should help restore this dignity in the spirit of compassion and care which are the essential elements of Ubuntu.
According to Mbigi and Maree (1995:20) "The spirit in African religion is one´s total being or soul. It represents our inner self and our total being. The spirit is who we really are. It is our values and our culture in terms of an organisation". This implies that the spirit of Ubuntu has endeavored to unite the religious community, and that is why we all have to adhere to the norms, customs and values in order to revive the concept of Ubuntu. People outside one´s culture should respect one´s religion.
For a meaningful worker for participation to occur, it is essential to harness the African communal spirit of grass-roots democracy based on respect and human dignity - Ubuntu - as well as the spirit of harmony and service. That is why Mbigi and Maree (1995) assert that "Continuous improvement teams (CITs), based on the natural working team and focusing on operational efficiency with the supervisor or team leader, should be formed.

This will necessitate weekly prosperity meetings (forums) to discuss progress towards targets. The aim is to stimulate bottom-up communication and empowerment giving access to information, knowledge, training and shop-floor democratic processes. This involves capacity building at grass-roots level. This emerging shop-floor democracy will empower the worker to contribute to wealth creation and to derive job satisfaction."

Racism is socially constructed and is not innate. The sociological implications of this are that human beings are socialised into racism, and grow up with acquired and racist stereotypes that are learnt from birth.

The fact that racism is a social construct means that if we exert efforts, all in sundry can eradicate or minimise racism to the acceptable and tolerable level, so as to consolidate the spirit of Ubuntu. "Equality might require us to put up with people who are different, non-sexism and non-racism might require us to rectify the inequities of the past" (Manifesto on Values, Education and Democracy, 2001:16). But Ubuntu emphasises the notion of mutual understanding and the active appreciation of the value of human difference. It requires us to know and understand others within a multicultural environment.

Tribalism on the other hand has no place in our fledging democracy, because instead of being a unifying factor, it causes cleavages. It further exacerbates division by creating favoritism and nepotism, something that is unacceptable in the African National Congress. We have to eradicate its deleterious effects. Multiculturalism teaches us to respect other cultures because we may not know what we can learn from other people whose views might be different from ours. That is why cultural diversity in a South African context teaches us to even learn other people´s languages. For reconciliation to occur in this country, we have to put our differences aside in order to rebuild the nation. People should learn to be conciliatory.

The efforts of corporate cultural transformation in South Africa must encourage acceptance of our differences and the discovery of our similarities. The process must avoid emphasising differences, e.g. Zulus accept you one way and Xhosas another way. Mbigi and Maree (1995) contend that the process must emphasise similarities and the creation of a common survival agenda. This implies that the emancipating African concept of Ubuntu is imperative with its emphasis on human dignity, respect and collective unity. Mbigi and Maree (1995:98) further argue that Ubuntu could facilitate the development of an inclusive national and corporate vision based on compassion and tolerance as well as the will to survive in spite of the constraints of our history.

According to Mbigi and Maree (1995), the Afro centric view of rewards is based on Ubuntu. One works for additional reward so that one´s fellow man or woman can enjoy the fruits of one´s labour. Whatever one earns is for the collective good of the community. The American conception is that if each person concentrates on accomplishing his personal best and on attaining inner fulfillment, this automatically contributes to the team´s greater good. Analogously, in the Afro centric view one thinks in terms of collective survival. Group loyalty is the key issue in building a team.

The essence of Ubuntu is collective shared experience and the collective solidarity.

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African Philosophy Through Ubuntu
Mogobe B. Ramose; Harare: Mond Books 1999, 208 p.p., ISBN: 177906-044-0

The discourse of R.’s book circles around three sayings (proverbs, maxims or aphorisms), which are taken from Sepedi, that is the Northern Sotho language:

Motho ke motho ka batho; (Duala: Moto na Moto, ke Bato)
Feta kgomo o tshware motho;
Kgosi ke kgosi ka batho.


In the contents of these proverbs much of the meaning of ubuntu is summarized. The word ubuntu is used in several Bantu languages, e.g. Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele; botho is the equivalent in Sotho- and hunhu in Shona-language. ‘The first aphorism means that to be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish repectful human relations with them.’ And ‘the second aphorism means that if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life’. The third ‘maxim’ as a ‘principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy’ says ‘that the king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him’. (193/194 and 150, see also 154, 138, 120, 52)

However, the meaning of ubuntu is not only related to the human world with its ethical and political demands. R. discusses this concept also in a comprehensive ontological horizon. It defines how the be-ing of an African is anchored in the universe. This is primarily expressed by the prefix ubu-, which contains the be-ing as enfolded, while the stem -ntu means its unfolding by means of an ‘incessant continual concrete manifestation through particular forms and modes of being’. This process of unfolding includes the emergence of the speaking and knowing human being. As such it is called umuntu, which is able ‘to conduct an inquiry into be-ing, experience, knowledge and truth’. Thus -ntu as ‘the process of continual unfoldment may be said to be the distinctly epistemological’ aspect of be-ing. (49-51, see also for the next section)

If it is correct that ontology and epistemology are the core disciplines of philosophy, it can be said that ‘African philosophy has long been established in and through ubuntu’. That here not only the Bantu speaking ethnic groups, who use the word ubuntu or an equivalent for it, are referred to, but the whole population of sub-Saharan Africa, is based on the argument that in this area ‘there is a “family atmosphere”, that is, a kind of philosophical affinity and kinship among and between the indigenous people of Africa’. Of course, it is admitted that ‘there will be variations within this broad philosophical “family atmosphere”. But the blood circulating through the “family” members is the same in its basics’. The whole area is delimited more precisely, with the words of De Tejada, as reaching ‘from the Nubian Desert to the Cape of Good Hope and from Senegal to Zanzibar’. And even this broad delimitation is questionable for R., because also ‘the meaning and import of human interaction before the birth of the Sahara Desert must be taken into account’.

By the same token, the one-ness of African philosophy is perceivable in the plurality of its voices. Let me give a few examples for that. We know about Dogon philosophy through M. Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli1, about Akan philosophy through K. Gyekye’s Essay on African Philosophical Thought2, about Yoruba philosophy through the book of B. Hallen and J.O. Sodipo on Knowlegde, Belief and Witchcraft3, about Gikuyu philosophy through G.J. Wanjohi’s The Wisdom and Philosophy of the Gikuyu Proverbs4, and about the philosophy of several sages from Kenya through H. Odera Oruka’s project Sage Philosophy5. These are voices from Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. R.’s book informs us about Sotho philosophy; it is a voice from South Africa. Its broader range within African philosophy is Bantu philosophy. As such it can be seen as a continuation and correction of P. Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy6.

It is a pity that the publisher did not have the title pages checked by the author. Thus it happens that R.’s name does not appear on these pages and that his function at the Catholic University of Brabant in The Netherlands is not described correctly. Dr. M.B. Ramose is a lecturer in philosophy, especially philosophy of law, at this university. In 1996 and 1997 he was employed as a professor of philosophy at the University of Venda in South Africa. There he has worked on the laying of the foundations for a Department of Philosophy in which not only Western and African philosophy, but also Eastern and Latin American philosophy had to be taught on an equal basis. Recently he has been appointed as a professor of philosophy at the University of South Africa (UNISA) at Pretoria.

In order to understand the sense in which a new approach to African philosophy is presented in this book, it is necessary to pay attention to the careful and innovative use of language which leads to a fresh understanding of quite a number of words. We have already seen that ubu-ntu is approached ‘as an hyphenated word’ and that a specific interpretation flows from this way of writing. The same is true for the concepts of ‘be-ing’, ‘whole-ness’ and ‘one-ness’. Ubuntu has to be thought of, and forms the basis of African philosophy, as a whole or as one in a very specific sense: ‘just as the environing soil, the root, stem, branches and leaves together … give meaning to our understanding of a tree’. It is remarkable that according to R. ubu-ntu is to be understood as a noun and a verb at the same time, like a gerund in Latin grammar. That is expressed in the ontological and epistemological aspects of it. But ‘it is also a gerundive … since it may crystallise into a particular form of social organisation’, and of metaphysical, ethical or political thought, as is shown by the sayings quoted above. In the latter more narrow sense, ubuntu could be rendered by human-ness. At any rate is it important not to make an -ism of it as in the word humanism. ‘The -ism suffix’, which is used in the book by S. Samkange and T.M. Samkange: Hunhuism or Ubuntuism. A Zimbabwe Indigenous Political Philosophy7, ‘gives the erroneous impression that we are dealing with verbs and nouns as fixed and separate entities existing independently’. (49-52)

The -ism suffix belongs to ‘fragmentative thinking’ and cannot be in accordance with the whole-ness and the constant flow of be-ing which is conceptualized as ‘be-ing becoming’. R. sees a connection between fragmentative thinking and the ‘structure of language’ which ‘is supposed to be inherent to language’, namely the sequence of ‘the noun (subject) - the verb - the object’. (52-54) Although he calls the language with this structure a certain ‘type of language’ and considers the ‘rheomode’, which we will discuss a bit later, as another ‘mode of language’, he takes the subject - verb - object structure as characteristic for ‘the linguistic order’ as such. Certainly, it is true that we find this syntactic structure in African and in Western languages. But here also we have to note a significant difference. For Western languages the structure ‘subject - predicate (=copula+complement)’ is even more important and is clearly further away from ‘be-ing becoming’ than the structure that is considered as quasi-universal by R. The situation gets even more complex if we take into account Eastern languages which do not use the copula ‘is’, but put subject and predicate together in a paratactic way.

The existence of different types of languages, on which R. does not reflect, could support his argument that it should be possible to arrive at the ‘rheomode language’, as it is described by D. Bohm in Wholeness and the Implicate Order8. This new mode of language will be less ‘prone to fragmentation’ and more apt to express the constant ‘flow’ of ubuntu (which is the meaning of the Greek word ‘rheo’). In rheomode language, ‘together the suffixes -ing and -ness preserve the idea of be-ing as a whole-ness’ and as becom-ing. And the verb is understood, as in ubuntu, ‘as the verbal noun, that is to say, the gerund’. Therefore, ‘the logic of ubu-ntu is distinctly rheomodic in character’. That means, ‘the African philosophic conception of the universe’ and of the position of the human being in it, is ‘pantareic’. The main concept of this way of thought is ‘motion’. ‘On this view, “order” cannot be established and fixed for all time’. (55-57)

R. points out the analogy of these characteristics of authentic African philosophy with the thought of Heraclitus, and also of G.W.F. Hegel and Ch.S. Peirce. From the more recent Western thinkers he quotes I. Prigogine and I. Stenger: ‘Being and Becoming are not to be opposed one to another; they express two related aspects of reality’. Their book Order out of Chaos9 presupposes the ‘experience of fundamental disequilibrium in be-ing’, from which order comes forth as one of abundant possibilities. (55) The African experience shares the feeling of ‘fundamental instability of be-ing’. That leads to the ‘ontological and epistemological imperative’ to contribute to the forthcoming and stabilising of order as a dynamic equilibrium. This imperative is obeyed by the Africans through their persistent search for harmony ‘in all spheres of life’. (59-60, see also for the next section)

Therefore, it is also possible to say that ‘be-ing’ in African philosophy is based on a ‘conception of the universe as a musical harmony’ and that ‘the dance of be-ing is an invitation to participate actively in and through the music of be-ing’. Thus the positive side of the African experience is expressed. As a reaction to this cosmic or ontological structure, dancing means for the African ‘to be in tune. To dance along with be-ing is to be attuned to be-ing’. Departing from K.C. Anyanwu’s article The idea of art in African thought10, the conception of ‘a universe of Pure Sound’, to which ‘body and soul’ of human persons have to respond, the philosophy of dance could be worked out as the core discipline of a philosophical aesthetics through ubuntu. R. himself is ‘acutely aware’ that the absence of ‘a chapter on art through ubuntu is … an understandable, but … not a dispensable omission’. (IV)

In the present book R. concentrates on the elaboration of metaphysics and religion, law and politics, medicine and ecology, and finally on a critical assessment of globalization on the basis of his explaination of the ontological and epistemological aspects of ubu-ntu. For the first two it is important to understand how the ‘three levels of human ex-istence’ are embedded in the ‘onto-triadic structure’ of ubuntu. The living (umuntu) stand in-between those who have passed away, but remain present as the living-dead (abaphansi), and those human beings who have ‘yet-to-be-born’. This structure presupposes an ‘ontology of invisible beings’. (62-63) The basic claim which is made in traditional African religions, and also in Afro-Islam and in Afro-Christianity, is ‘that it is possible and real to communicate with dead, departed, desentised and formless invisible beings’. (68) Thus ‘the human individual is inextricably linked to the all-encompassing’ physical and metaphysical universe, and also to the ‘human universe in the sense of community’. (80)

When we reflect on these statements, we have to keep in mind what R.C. Onwuanibe remarks in his article The Human Person and Immortality in Ibo (African) Metaphysics11: that in African thought ‘the metaphysical sphere is not abstractly divorced from concrete experience’, but is part and parcel of that experience. (81) Only through the different rites by which a human being is incorporated into certain age groups, especially the circumcision of boys and the clitoris-excision of girls, he or she becomes a person and ‘gains recognition as part of the ancestors’. He or she remains an ancestor during his or her lifetime and as a living-dead, that is to say as long as he or she is remembered by the living of his community after his or her physical death. That means: ‘Memory is indispensible to the idea of personal immortality’. When a deceased human being is no longer remembered by the living, he or she loses the status of a person, and ‘being an non-person is the same as having lost immortality as well’. R. comes to the remarkable conclusion: ‘So it is that personal immortality’ is a relative one, it is ‘paradoxically a transient reality’ in African traditional metaphysics and religion. This might be seen in a certain correspondence with ‘the Christian conception of immortality as a “gift” from God’, which is given at the moment of resurrection. After that moment, of course, immortality no longer has a transient status according to Christian belief. In this respect, the Christian conception ‘refuses to accept the transience of immortality’ as it is anchored in the African experience. (90-92)

With regard to chapters 6 and 7 on law and on politics through ubuntu, and also chapter 8, which is written in honour of Bantu Biko, we can refer back to the abovementioned Sotho proverbs 2) and 3). Ubuntu or Bantu law ‘is flexible, unformalised and popular in the sense that it springs from the people’. It avoids fragmentation and ‘accords primacy to the concrete whereas Western legal thought appears to stress the abstract’. In other words: it is ‘a combination of rules of behaviour which are contained in the flow of life’. J.H. Driberg has formulated in his article The African Conception of Law12, that ‘African law is positive and not negative’ and that ‘its whole object is to maintain an equilibrium’. Therefore, ‘the penalties … are directed, not against specific infractions, but to the restoration of this equilibrium’. This process not only takes place in the community of the living, but also in a ‘constant communication between the living and the living-dead (ancestors)’. The ubuntu-character of law means, that also the ‘yet-to-be-born’ have to be taken into account. (114-117)

In comparison to Western multi-party democracy, the ‘new mode of politics’ resulting from this way of thought, is worked out by R. mainly in discussion with E. Wamba dia Wamba and is documented in Quest. An International African Journal of Philosophy, vol. V and VI, 1991 and 1992. Western democracy, with opposition as a necessary element and the majority principle as the main means for decision making, turns out to be deeply alien to the African experience. It seems to be necessary ‘that the indigenous conquered people of Africa construct an epistemological paradigm of their own as a means of expressing their authenticity and in order to attain true liberation’. That is possible by exploring ‘the democratic tradition’ of the African people. ‘Historically, the fact of unjust conquest - by the people of European origin - of the indigenous people of Africa is the necessary starting point.’ As a consequence of the unjust conquest, the ‘alien culture has become part and parcel of the African experience’, especially insofar as the foundation of nation-states is concerned. (129-131)

K. Gyekye’s Essay on African Philosophical Thought (see note 2) is quoted in order to prove ‘the almost infinite quest for consensus in traditional African culture’ which does not correspond with the Western principle of ‘adversarial politics’: ‘The communal ethos of African culture necessarily placed a great value on solidarity, which in turn necessitated the pursuit of unanimity or consensus’ on all levels of political decisions. Opposition, although not just ‘for the sake of opposition’, is embodied in the process of finding a consensus. No multi-party system is needed for that. And the abovementioned proverb 2) makes clear that also the rule of a king in Africa is not possible without the ‘consent of the people’. Where and when African people had a king, he ‘was king by the grace of the people and not by the grace of God as medieval Western political thought held’. (139-141) This authentic African style of government is called ‘Bantucracy’ in the chapter on Bantu Biko. (153)

However, ‘the principle of solidarity is undermined in contemporary multi-party politics in Africa’. Also the principles of sharing with and caring for others, which are expressed in proverb 3) and which belong to the ‘communal ethos’ as it has been described by Gyekye, become lost in this new situation. As a consequence, ‘nepotism, corruption and lack of sympathy for the other have become widespread’. The traditional principles do not function any more under the condition of multi-party politics and majority rule. And a new political ethos, as it may exist in Western countries, is not available. ‘It is crucial to reincorporate the principle of sharing - in relation to the other principles so far mentioned - in the construction of an emancipative mode of politics in contemporary Africa’. (144; the words between dashes are inserted by me, HK) In order to make this possible, it is necessary ‘to situate the alien culture of the European conqueror in fundamental dialogue with African tradition. The aim of this dialogue should be to determine if the two radically opposed epistemological paradigms’ of political thought ‘can be reconciled’ in some way or other, and also ‘the possibility for a voluntary peaceful coexistence between the two paradigms must be explored’. (134)

The next step of our review will be to look at the chapters 4 and 9 on medicine and ecology through ubuntu. The starting point for an African philosophy of medicine is the thesis, ‘that illness or disease is to a very large extent based on culture’. (97) This thesis is defended in more detail by G. Sokolo in his article On a Socio-cultural Conception of Health and Disease in Africa13. R. relies on another paper of this author, presented at the First International Regional Conference in African Philosophy, held at Mombasa, Kenya, in 1988. (101) In respect to medical care the principles of ubuntu ‘become apparent in the institution of bongaka’. R.’s intention is to show ‘that medical care in traditional Africa has to a large extent been provided’, in particular also ‘in mental or psychiatric cases’ without recourse ‘to seperate or isolated asylum centres’.

During the different stages of bongaka the illness of a person is explained and treated on the basis of ‘a correlation between the bodily illness and the disturbance of harmony and balance in the relation between the living and the living-dead (ancestors)’. Only when this balance is restored, the ngaka (healer) will move on to ‘the prescription of specific herbs for the healing of the body’. He or she and the ill person share the belief that the ‘healing powers flow’ through the healer from a ‘supernatural or unknown source’. Independently from payment, ‘ngaka is obliged to provide medicine for the patient’. This obligation ‘means that no single human being can be thoroughly and completely useless’. And ‘even the demented still have a meaning in life, otherwise the ancestors would have provided for their passage out of this world’. (97-99)

Like illness, the problems of a damaged environment are caused by a loss of harmony or balance. In this case it is not primarily the harmony in the relation between human beings and their ancestors, but ‘between human beings and physical nature’. The loss of this balance is at the same time the ‘loss of botho’ or ubuntu. It is not possible to restore botho by using only technological means only, as the advances of technology have also ‘resulted in serious disturbances to ecology’, so that ‘humanity is faced with the threat of catastrophic ecological disaster’. R. sees a link between this threat and the ‘principle of state sovereignty’ in the organization of human society. According to him, this principle ‘is, in practice, orientated to the self, it is nurtured and feeds upon the culture of the self’. (155-158) R. does not show, how the different political culture of traditional Africa can help to tackle this combination of problems. In my opinion the book of B. Davidson: The Black Man’s Burden. Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State14 can be useful in that situation.

The last chapter on ‘Globalisation and ubuntu’ provides a radically critical analysis of this powerful trend in contemporary history, which puts Africa again in a disavantageous position. Economic powers are clearly the motor of this process. R. speaks repeatedly of ‘economic fundamentalism’ and a ‘relentless pursuit of profit’. As globalization in this sense can only be contested on a worldwide scale, ‘the Bantu-speaking peoples must remain open to collaborate with all human beings the world over, who are determined to replace the deadly dogma of economic fundamentalism’ with another way of thought which is oriented to ‘the preservation of human life through sharing’. (164) As I see it, this strategy seems to be too negative and onesided. I find it necessary to ask here for a ‘fundamental dialogue’ too, which takes place as a struggle against the negative effects of globalization by mobilizing counterforces within this process. The paradoxical structure of ‘drawing and demolishing boundaries at the same time’ (161) means also that unification goes together with new ways of diversification. There is no other way than to strengthen the forces of different cultures which hopefully can make it possible for them to participate in globalization in their own way.

I agree that ‘the expansion of religion, especially Christianity and Islam’, has contributed importantly to the broadening of trade and eventually the ‘foundation of globalisation’. (165) And it is clear, that globalization is a phenomenon succeeding colonisation. Under such complex and difficult conditions, I doubt that the critique of ‘monogamous legal marriage’ is a very promising starting point in the fight against globalization as an effect of economic fundamentalism. It is clear that the exclusive legality of this type of marriage is only linked to Christianity and not to Islam as the other expanding great religion. And the connection, which R. constructs between industrialization and the establishing of monogamous marriage, seems too direct and again, somewhat onesided. (170) I can follow him in his search for an alliance with feminism in the worldwide struggle for emancipation. This alliance, however, also needs a broader underpinning by historical and social research. R.’s conclusion is surprising, but might be right, that it means an increase of freedom, if everybody is in the situation ‘to choose one’s form of marriage’. (169)

The philosophy of human rights provides a more dialogical and more effective starting point for the assessment and evaluation of globalization. According to the principles of ubuntu the ‘right ot life’ may not be called into question. And also the ‘right to food’ and the ‘right to labour’ must be claimed forcibly, because they are in danger as long as the majority of humanity is marginalized and remains ‘exist in the sphere of subsistence economy’. Thus the stress on individual rights laid by Western history in formulating human rights can be amended. It is an important supplement to these rights that ‘rules of distribution must be formulated and observed in order to satisfy each and every individual’s claim to the right to life’. Severe destabilizing effects of globalization can only be avoided if elements are implemented in this process to make sure that it does not continue to produce lasting marginalization and by that token ‘victims of exclusion’. (179-185)

Some final remarks will deal with the two chapters of the introductory ‘Part one’ of R.’s book. ‘Part one as a whole may be seen as the justification and defence of African philosophy’. After long and controversial debates on this subject R. wants ‘to repeat and reaffirm the validity of African philosophy’ by presenting it ‘through the voice from within’. At the same time he states, that the ‘struggle for reason’, which means philosophically the struggle against the often pronounced opinion that Aristotle’s defintion of man as a rational animal ‘was not spoken of the African’, is ‘very much alive’ in many terrains of ‘post-1994 South Africa’. (IV) But it is not sufficient, according to R., to reject the philosophical racism of Hegel (and many others, e.g. Voltaire, Hume, Kant); the ongoing decolonization of the mind demands that the African philosopher should ‘abandon the path of mimetic philopraxis - the uncritical imitation of the life (and theoretical work) of non-Africans - and pursue the route of authentic liberation of the continent’. (9; the words between brackets are inserted by me, HK)

As far as Hegel is concerned, things are even worse than R. points out. Not ‘without a further and deeper analysis’ of the concept of rationality, ‘Hegel implicitly assumes that rationality is characteristic of Europe’ only, (30) but on the basis of such an analysis, he states this explicitly. In a final statement, however, we cannot blame Hegel for that, but Europe. As I have shown earlier in a more comprehensive assessment of Hegel und Afrika15, Hegel does exactly what he says: in his philosophy ‘express its time in thought’. This does not mean, that philosophy in general has no critical function within its time, but that it is also in its critical utterances bound to the horizon of thought in which it operates. Thus Hegel became the mouthpiece of ‘European political and spiritual imperialism’. (34)
Following Hegel and not following him, African philosophy has to rely on the ‘African experience’ and not on anybody other’s experience, when it strives to express its time in thought. This is an experience of well-functioning precolonial societies, of humiliation and dehumanization by the colonial powers, and of an unfinished process of decolonization and liberation. R. formulates sharply enough: ‘The independent review and construction of knowledge in the light of the unfolding African experience is not only a vital goal, but it is also an act of liberation.’ (36) When this position is clear, a dialogue with Western, Eastern, Latin American and other philosophies is possible and necessary, in order to enhance ‘a genuinely authentic and global common universe of discourse’, in which commonalities and differences have their justifiable parts. (47; the italics in the quotation are mine, HK)


A document compiled by
Brother Metusala Dikobe
PeupleSawa.com
 

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