Gwen Ngwenya
Gwen Ngwenya

Ubuntu, a cliché not a philosophy

Ubuntu, like many other words and concepts one comes across at a young age, has been a part of my reservoir of knowledge for so large a part of my life that it is impossible, save with the intervention of hypnotherapy, to pinpoint the first time I heard or understood it. One rarely came across the word and for a long time it floated in the recesses of my mind alongside other random knowledge. But since its popularisation by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the word now trends as the number one cliché in South Africa. And we are worse off for it.

Its use is sustained by efforts from both sides of the fence. On the one side are the hand-wringers, desperate to be ‘in’ with the black intelligentsia and to appear worldly and at ease with African culture. On the other side are the complex-ridden black intelligentsia. There is a complex concerned with demonstrating that Western knowledge is not superior. Ubuntu is an attempt to pass an unsophisticated concept as a philosophical position that provides distinct ethical and perhaps even metaphysical answers. In essence the point to prove is that Africa has a unique philosophy about life from which others can learn. Anyone will concede that Africa does have a different world view. But different is not the equivalent of distinctive, remarkable or even noteworthy. And so it is with the idea of uniqueness that the farce of Ubuntu begins.

The popularity of Ubuntu as a concept is buttressed by three suppositions. The first of these is an idea of distinctiveness, the second an alleged contrast to the Western idea of individualism and lastly, the idea that old, lost or forgotten wisdom is better. There may well be others, but these are the most fundamental.

The idea of Ubuntu as a distinctive African philosophy is a fallacy. The only thing distinctive about Ubuntu is that it collates various ideas, which naturally follow on from each other, into a singular term. Its achievement is one of brevity, not philosophical insight, for with one word we can express many complementary sentiments. A philosophy is distinctive because some or all of the ideas that make up its parts are unique. It may also be distinctive for the reason that it links together ideas, never before recognised as compatible, into a new, coherent whole. But it does seem a cop-out to link existing ideas already recognised to flow from each other or to be linked connotatively and masquerade them as a unique philosophy. The argument might then be that Ubuntu long defined human interaction among various peoples in Africa before the knowledge of Western equivalents. This is a fair response, the fair answer to which is that Ubuntu is analogous with concepts of goodwill towards others, ‘no man is an island’ (our actions affect others and vice versa) and a basic call to recognise each other’s humanness. But distinct it is not.

South Africans, however, are not worse off because Ubuntu is not a unique philosophy. We are worse off because of the undercurrent supposition that Ubuntu stands contrary to Western ideals and that it can therefore be used as a rejection of them. This certainly is not the view of all proponents of Ubuntu, but it is implied often enough to merit discussion. The West is a somewhat elusive term and there is no reason to revere anything just because it is Western. But we do owe many of our democratic institutions, civil liberties and the secular state to those who dared to believe that the individual is sovereign. And whatever was significant of that fight was first fought and won in Western countries.

A simple reading on the subject of individualism will soon reveal it to be compatible with some core ideas linked to Ubuntu. I have always understood Ubuntu to literally mean ‘a person is a person through other people’, and from that could be extrapolated the sense in which one’s identity is partly determined by family, the community and by society. A statement so indisputable it would readily receive the backing of any classical liberal. Individualism is a philosophy expounding on the moral worth of the individual and an outlook regarding individual liberty and self-determination. But any legitimate liberal will be quick to point out that liberty is indivisible. There cannot be real liberty if it is reserved for only some. It is an individual but not a selfish outlook.

Whenever there appears to be hegemony of a particular group of people and their ideas, there is always an inclination to question accepted wisdom. One wonders whether there is other knowledge that has been overlooked. It is on this inclination — the inclination to hanker after the old or the forgotten — that the last buttress of Ubuntu stands. There is some debate as to what extent Ubuntu existed or exists as a concept that defined or continues to define social interaction among traditional African people. And the extent to which it is perhaps an academic invention by African writers. Whatever the answer, we need to approach ‘new’ knowledge not with idealism but with scrutiny.

There is much more to be said on the matter, but the bones of the argument are thus: Ubuntu is a useless catch-all concept (not philosophy), it’s initial inanity lay in its expression of an idea so obvious it bore no need of mention, now it means so many things as to rob it of the only merit it ever possessed — succinctness.

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