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Ubuntu in western society

By Melo Magolego

Black South Africans have a penchant for waxing lyrical about botho/ubuntu. It is an ideology which, much like Pratley Putty, we seek to export worldwide. An ideology to which we claim intellectual property and boldly assert is inextricably linked to our being Africans. But is this thing really that unique? Or do we suppose that other societies (more specifically white western societies) lack the collectivist view which we claim warrants distinction in our brand?

A couple of years back I lived in Los Angeles. One day as I was walking from my room to the supermarket and I saw one of the residents of the old-age home across the road taking a stroll around the block. His legs cramped and he fell. I hurriedly crossed the street and tried to help him up. His cramping legs just conspired against my every effort. A couple of people gathered around and one boldly asked “do you need help?” I was incredulous and thought to myself “I don’t know? What does it look like?” But I politely retorted “yes I do”. He then jumped across the street and went back to his house. I was perplexed, shocked and disgusted. Three minutes (exactly) later an ambulance, a fire engine and a police car arrived. It turns out he went to call 911.

This left me wondering whether botho isn’t perhaps a social coping mechanism for our dire poverty and lack of amenities. That is, our botho is a want for material prosperity and a vestige of our communal agrarian selves. If this were true then countries with the most robust infrastructure (eg Switzerland, Germany etc) would exhibit the least ubuntu. But I felt material prosperity did not explain the warmth of botho.

Western society does not lack a collectivist view: collectivism there is outsourced and manifests in payment of taxes and the subsequent provision of services. This intangible stuff, this botho, is our ideology of how an individual relates to the whole. How we negotiate the universal trade-off between individual rights and collective prosperity. This negotiation is not unique: liberalism has always struggled with utilitarianism and individual freedoms.

Our botho can be identified by, among others, the following five characteristics: extroverted communities, socialisation of prosperity, redemption, deference to hierarchy and humanism.

Extroverted communities are the most visible part of this ideology. There is sincere warmth with which we treat strangers and members of the community. This exhibitionist display of warmth is not merely aesthetic but enables formation of spontaneous communities (Bible groups on Metrorail trains and stokvels from taxi passengers). The resultant collaborative work within these spontaneous communities transcends the aesthetic and gives functional significance to the sincere warmth. How else are you to ask for sugar from your neighbour? Warmth is not the sine qua non of community formation but guards against instrumentalist relationships. Further, warmth may leave one vulnerable to those with ulterior motives.

Socialisation of prosperity is similar to redistributive policies in liberalism. This socialisation is a vestige of agrarian man as a hedge against his own crop failures. Socialisation presupposes a community population with which man empathises and concomitantly, has a vested interest in its collective prosperity. Urbanisation and the aggregation of people into an abstract and bureaucratic state undermines this empathy.

Redemption relates to how we deal with errant, deviant and dissident members of the community. The belief is that man is born formless like a lump of clay. It is up to the community, as a whole, to use the fire of experience to mould him into a pot — a pot that may be of general use. Any imperfections should be borne by the community and we should always seek to redeem man. An example of this is the statement by the ANC that it does not throw out its own but rather redeems. A limitation of this is that not all clay is the same.

Deference to hierarchy manifests in many forms: at the top of the hierarchy may be tradition, sangomas, elders, parents, men, authority or peoples. This deference implies that what is good is necessarily what the top of the hierarchy defines it to be. This deference may be called respect — especially with elders and authority. I remember Uganda President Yoweri Museveni saying in The Thinker that people like Muammar Gaddafi (or even western leadership in general) tends to misconstrue this deference as passport to speak to African heads of state as though they were children. The lens of hierarchy of peoples might explain why Mozambicans disproportionately bear the brunt of our xenophobia more than the populous Zimbabwean migrants.

Our humanism asserts that humanness in man is not solely endowed by a transcendental being. But in addition, by whether man subscribes to the ideology of the community. An example is a Zulu-speaking person who when telling you to speak in Zulu would say “khuluma isintu” (speak the language of people). When someone behaves well a Sotho-speaking person would say “ke motho” (he/she is a human). The exclusionary and abhorrent aspect of this would be exemplified by a tale told (often, in private quarters) in Nguni “kushone abantu ababili ne Shangaan”, in Pedi “go tlhokofetje batho ba babedi le leShangane”, in English (two people died and one Shangaan). This also speaks to the hierarchy of peoples.

Each of these characteristics may not be unique to Africa or be universally desirable. Nor do they exist as idealistic forms in current society. But enough of a vestige of the aesthetic of our extroverted communities remains to have meaningful functional significance and warrant distinction.

Melo is also a Fulbright scholar and read electrical engineering at Caltech. Follow on Twitter @melomagolego


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. Batho Pele Batho Pele 3 April 2013

    Very, very interesting – and a great interpretation of the positive values of ubuntu, which has been often taken by politicians to mean negative collectivism or ensuring all are pushed down to the lowest common denominator. Inspiring and positive.

  2. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 3 April 2013

    From what I’ve seen, the larger the community the lower the humanity. There are the bright sparks of light but, in general, people lose the connection between each other.

    Any smallish village in the world works on the principle of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ but every large city works on the principle of ‘don’t get involved or you will probably be sued’. Helping that old man was very sweet of you but if something had gone wrong, you would have been sitting in a court room.

  3. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 3 April 2013

    Calling your own clan/tribe/nation “THE People” and seeing everyone else therefore as not THE People is universal. All the early explorers and early colonialists record this phenonomen all over the globe.

    The first white settlers in New Amsterdam, which later became New York, also recorded the local Native American people as calling themselves by a name which means “THE People”. It has nothing to do with skin colour but much more to do with culture which includes religious beliefs.

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 3 April 2013

    The belief that WE are “THE People” and THEY are not is behind most wars.

    On this page you have a multi media M& G post on Stateless People born in countries which won’t grant them citizen papers, but only Africa is dealt with. Saudi Arabia allows no children born in Saudi Arabia of contract labour to have citizenship, not even Palestinian refugee children or grandchildren whose parents and grandparents have been living in Saudi Arabia for 60 years.

  5. JK JK 3 April 2013

    Theoretically comprehensive, but:
    – How does that example you relate, leave you wondering “whether botho isn’t perhaps a social coping mechanism for our dire poverty and lack of amenities”?
    – You wonder whether “our botho is a want for material prosperity and a vestige of our communal agrarian selves. If this were true then countries with the most robust infrastructure (eg Switzerland, Germany etc) would exhibit the least ubuntu” — isn’t this true?! The Nordic countries, with their efficient govts and high taxes, DO have low levels “ubuntu”. So how do you reach the opposite conclusion?
    – Your 5 dimensional model is nice, but where are the references?

  6. Enough Said Enough Said 3 April 2013

    I don’t know why Fulbright Scholar rings bells:”

    “Lindsay Moran had an interest in everything espionage related from her early years on.[1] Her childhood fantasies were fueled by spy novels, especially “Harriet the Spy”[2] and James Bond series and she dreamed of growing up to join the CIA.[3] When she was a child, she often conducted surveillance on the neighbors or communicated with friends through secret codes.[]

    After graduating from Harvard, she won a Fulbright scholarship and then became an English teacher in Bulgaria.[5]

    In 1998, she was employed by the CIA and quit the job after five years.

    [edit] Clandestine career After graduating from Harvard and submitting an application that included her language skills and her time living in Eastern Europe as a Fulbright scholar, Moran was quickly recruited to work for the CIA. At first, she took great delight in the job since it fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming an officer:


    Reference Wikipedia.

  7. Enough Said Enough Said 3 April 2013

    “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

    ― Desmond Tutu

  8. bernpm bernpm 4 April 2013

    “Ubuntu” to me means “sharing your possessions” whether you like it or not.
    Luckily we have insurances to protect us against too much Ubuntu.

  9. Oldfox Oldfox 4 April 2013

    Is Humanism not the most important characteristic of Botho/Ubuntu ?
    Humanism was described in writing by Confucius some 2500 years ago, but no doubt was practiced in various forms around the world long ago. I’d add compassion as an element of Humanism, and we get compassion, and the lack of it worldwide.

    I think both materialism & and the industrial society (or post industrial society) contributes to the breakdown or erosion of Botho/Ubuntu/Humanism. High income inequality weakens these further. I would even say that high equality in SA is indicative of senior govt officials not really practicing Ubuntu.

  10. Dave Dave 4 April 2013

    Nothing new here. Read Robert Ardrey’s ‘The Social Contract’ circa 1970

  11. Melo Magolego Melo Magolego 4 April 2013


    1) Often (in SA) helping people is seen as botho. My initial reaction was to that. But botho is multi-faceted and this case is only one dimension.

    2) If ubuntu is wholly just want for material prosperity then one might argue that becoming wealthy would mean no botho. As you pointed out Nordic countries might confirm this. But problem is in logical conclusion that: if SA becomes prosperous then everyone would lose botho. That does not sit easy with me. Hence why I say there has to be something more.

    3) As for references this is a blog and more a reflection of observed life than an academic paper. In short the “model” is my observation. I am sure there are academics out there who think differently but that does not delegitimise my observations

  12. Melo Magolego Melo Magolego 4 April 2013

    @Momma Cyndi

    (1) Yes in large societies, the high turnover of people hence the constant new faces don’t help to make for a stable group which you can trust.

    (2) Yes this happened quite early in my residence there. Fortunately now am conscientised of such suing tendencies

  13. Melo Magolego Melo Magolego 4 April 2013

    @ Lyndall Beddy

    Yes it is difficult to kill, en masse, people that are within your moral circle of empathy

  14. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 4 April 2013

    @ Melo

    That is how ALL armies are trained – that the enemy is sub-human so that soldiers will kill them.

  15. conniebuwa conniebuwa 4 April 2013

    Sir, your are absolutely correct. This concept Ubuntu is new for me, however we the people of the African Diaspora (and not just South Africa) exude this Ubuntu within our communities, teach it within our churches and families, my mom showed her children an example of Ubuntu while providing food and shelter for strangers in the hood, we have spread it across this host nation when we recognize and great each other in passing.

    When something tragic has happened usually perpetrated by the white community, a black person is often placed out front on national television to assuage the people. Not that this is the right thing to do, that is to put black folks out front in support of extremely divisive issues, i.e., trayvon martin, sean bell, amadu diallo, usually where a violent act has been perpetrated on a minority, however the host nation knows that
    African Americans will respect the elder, authoritative figure, even if we do not agree with what is being sold to us.

  16. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 5 April 2013

    Melo Magolego

    Whilst it is fortunate that you know about the ramifications, it is also very, very sad that you have to heed them. It makes us so much less than what we should be. Nobody should have to ask before helping or be afraid of the consequences of doing so.

  17. Stephen Stephen 5 April 2013

    Ubuntu, is all very nice. Then how come SA is one of the most violent societies on the planet?

  18. Oldfox Oldfox 7 April 2013

    I have never heard of that view before. In traditional societies, the village chief always had more possessions. For those that had a king, several top officials would have had more possessions. Certainly, humanism implies helping those in need.
    Humanism involves non material things too, such as being magnanimous to defeated enemies after a battle/war.

  19. JK JK 7 April 2013

    Okay, so this 5 factor model is your own? Not based on stuff you’ve read?

    Also – Stephen’s questions is important – isn’t this ubuntu stuff just a historical myth – we’re so violent that to say we’re all humanely connected is deluded.

  20. Melo Magolego Melo Magolego 8 April 2013

    1) I think it is illogical to want to characterise a community by a small pocket of violent elements.

    2) A society is dynamic and will always be strained by new stressors. A question to you: why is it not plausible that there are other stressors (e.g. inequality, etc.) which result in this despite the best efforts of an overarching ubuntu ideology?

    3) Ubuntu is not pacifism. Men have always used violence to gain advantage; however in a functioning society there are guiding principles that mediate community relations. In a functioning society the majority of interactions between members are civil and are guided by these principles (ethics if you will). You cannot use the atypically individualistic tendency of an ubuntu society to justify the typically individualistic nature of another society.

    4) Blame Apartheid (yes, an old favourite). The incentives to use violence as a means to gain advantage become tempered by the presence of a strong and universal deterrent. Typically this is respect for the law and the unfailing presence of an entity which enforces order. In the run up to the end of Apartheid people acquired an anti-culture towards authority and the law (this very much prevalent for example in township schools). Mass migration and urbanisation have undermined whatever authority structures there may have been to deal with the small pockets of violence.

  21. Melo Magolego Melo Magolego 8 April 2013


    (1) Would I be wrong to infer that you are partial to knowledge gleaned from books? For me I think this is the myth of epistemology: that knowledge flows from academia down to the masses. Often times mere observations and perspectives give a different angle of interpretation. However more realistically my blog is a synthesis of what I’ve read and of what I have observed having lived in rural Sekhukhune, peri-urban townships north of Pretoria and urban settings of Pretoria and Jhb.

    Yes, I know if it is in a book then it is likely peer reviewed and likely to have a tome of empirical data behind it. None of the claims I have made are resistant to falsification – and there would likely be backed up by empirical data freely available.

    (2) Is your reasoning: we are so violent therefore we cannot possibly care about our fellow man nor have humane empathy? Is it that: we slaughter animals and eat them because we don’t care about animals nor have empathy when they suffer? I don’t share this line of reasoning. Humans have cirlces of moral empathy. Just because one ideology (e.g. botho) has it’s circle open wider more often than another ideology does not preclude botho from narrowing the circle every now and again. Nor does it render it a myth when certain small pockets (of members in a botho society) decide to keep their circles constantly smaller.

  22. Melo Magolego Melo Magolego 8 April 2013

    Is humanism the core of botho? That claim becomes treacherous if one considers the central role which Sangomas played in the lives of blacks. Sangomas would tend to privilege the transcendental over the human form. So I would say it is humanist to the extent that it seeks to mediate the tension between the desires of an individual and those of the group (or even various other groups).

    On the role of Sangomas, even today still – remember media reports alleging that Zuma refused to move into Mahlambandlovu after Mbeki vacated because Zuma’s Sangoma hadn’t had a chance to give it a once over. I think the kidnapping for body parts and the recent phenomenon of infant rapes would also speak to this treachery.

    Notwithstanding, it is at core an ideology which is founded on being humane.

  23. Angie Angie 3 June 2013

    HI Melo. This is a great conversation! I am researching how to help people who have attained leadership positions retain, or in some cases, find, their humanity. My research is seems to indicate that many of the qualities of acknowledged leaders leaders – fearlessness, confidence, charm, focus – actually mirron qualities of psychopaths. Can people who live according to the spirit of ubuntu become successful leaders in business, for example? If so, who are they? How do you think transforming inhumane leaders into human leaders can be achieved? My efforts are in the area of restorative practice, where I attempt to help people in conflict find resolution through coming together and collectively exploring what harm has been caused and experienced, and what needs to happen to repair the harm to the relationships. I’m starting to think that I’m too idealistic. Loved finding all these posts!

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