Ubuntu (// oo-BUUN-too; Zulu/Xhosa pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼú]) is a Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to "human kindness." It is an idea from the Southern African region which means literally "human-ness," and is often translated as "humanity towards others," but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity".
In Southern Africa, it has come to be used as a term for a kind of humanist philosophy, ethic or ideology, also known as Ubuntuism or Hunhuism (the latter after the corresponding Shona term) propagated in the Africanization (transition to majority rule) process of these countries during the 1980s and 1990s.
Since the transition to democracy in South Africa with the Nelson Mandela presidency in 1994, the term has become more widely known outside of Southern Africa, notably popularized to English language readers by Desmond Tutu (1999).
History of the concept
The term ubuntu appears in South African sources from as early as the mid-19th century. Reported translations covered the semantic field of "human nature, humanness, humanity; virtue, goodness, kindness". Grammatically, the word combines the root -ntu "person, human being" with the class 14 ubu- prefix forming abstract nouns, so that the term is exactly parallel in formation to the abstract noun humanity.
The concept was popularized in terms of a "philosophy" or "world view" (as opposed to a quality attributed to an individual) beginning in the 1950s, notably in the writings of Jordan Kush Ngubane published in the African Drum magazine. From the 1970s, the ubuntu began to be described as a specific kind of "African humanism". Based on the context of Africanization propagated by the political thinkers in the 1960s period of decolonization, ubuntu was used as a term for a specifically African (or Southern African) kind of socialism or humanism found in blacks, but lacking in whites, in the context of the transition to black majority rule in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The first publication dedicated to ubuntu as a philosophical concept appeared in 1980, Hunhuism or Ubuntuism: A Zimbabwe Indigenous Political Philosophy (hunhu being the Shona equivalent of Nguni ubuntu) by Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange. Hunhuism or Ubuntuism is presented as political ideology for the new Zimbabwe, as Southern Rhodesia was granted independence from the United Kingdom. From Zimbabwe, the concept was taken over in South Africa in the 1990s as a guiding ideal for the transition from apartheid to majority rule. The term appears in the Epilogue of the Interim Constitution of South Africa (1993), "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".
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There are many different, and not always compatible, definitions of what ubuntu is (for a survey of how ubuntu is defined among South Africans of African descent see Gade 2012: "What is Ubuntu? Different Interpretations among South Africans of African Descent"). Ubuntu asserts that society, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity. An example is a Zulu-speaking person who when telling you to speak in Zulu would say “khuluma isintu,” which means "speak the language of people". When someone behaves according to custom, a Sotho-speaking person would say “ke motho,” which means "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 Sepedi “go tlhokofetje batho ba babedi le leShangane”, in English (two people died and one Shangaan). In each of these examples, humanity comes from conforming to or being part of the tribe.
According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarized as follows:
“ 'A person is a person through other people' strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.
An "extroverted communities" aspect is the most visible part of this ideology. There is sincere warmth with which people treat both strangers and members of the community. This overt display of warmth is not merely aesthetic but enables formation of spontaneous communities (co-operatives if you will). The resultant collaborative work within these spontaneous communities transcends the aesthetic and gives functional significance to the value of 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. Unfortunately, sincere warmth may leave one vulnerable to those with ulterior motives.
"Ubuntu" as political philosophy has aspects of socialism, propagating the redistribution of wealth. This is similar to redistributive policies in liberalism. This socialisation is a vestige of agrarian peoples as a hedge against the crop failures of individuals. Socialisation presupposes a community population with which individuals empathise and concomitantly, have a vested interest in its collective prosperity. Urbanisation and the aggregation of people into an abstract and bureaucratic state undermines this empathy. African Intellectual historians like Michael Onyebuchi Eze have argued however that this ideal of "collective responsibility" must not be understood as absolute in which the community's good is prior to the individual's good. On this view, ubuntu it is argued, is a communitarian philosophy that is widely differentiated from the Western notion of communitarian socialism. In fact, ubuntu induces an ideal of shared human subjectivity that promotes a community's good through an unconditional recognition and appreciation of individual uniqueness and difference
"Redemption" relates to how people 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 and the wheel of social control to mold him into a pot that may be of general use. Any imperfections should be borne by the community and the community should always seek to redeem man. An example of this is the statement by the African National Congress (in South Africa) that it does not throw out its own but rather redeems. A possible limitation of this is that not all clay is the same and not all tools are pots or of general use. Likewise, not all people are the same or similar, and not all people are fated to have the same or similar function.
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In the Shona language, the majority spoken language in Zimbabwe after English, ubuntu is unhu. The concept of ubuntu is viewed the same in Zimbabwe as in other African cultures, and the Zulu saying is also common in Shona: munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu.
Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange (1980) highlights the three maxims of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism that shape this philosophy: The first maxim asserts that 'To be human is to affirm one's humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.' And 'the second maxim 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'.
While sharing is incorporated within "unhu", it is only one of the multiplicity of virtues within "unhu". In the "unhu" domain, visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions – all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through without payment being expected. In fact, every individual should try his or her best to make visitors comfortable – and this applies to everyone who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality.
Other manifestations of ubuntu are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames. This has the effect of banishing individualism and replacing it with a representative role, in which the individual effectively stands for the people among whom he comes from at all times. The individual identity is replaced with the larger societal identity within the individual. Thus, families are portrayed or reflected in the individual and this phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions being portrayed in the individual. This places high demands on the individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the highest possible virtues that society strives for. "Unhu" embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.
A key concept associated with "unhu" is how we behave and interact in our various social roles, e.g., daughters-in-law traditionally kneel down when greeting their parents-in-law and serve them food as a sign of respect and maintain the highest standards of behaviour that will be extended or reflected to her family and all the women raised in that family. The daughter-in-law does this as part of the ambassadorial function that she plays and assumes at all times. However, this does not apply only to daughters-in-law but to all women in general, even among friends and equals such as brother and sister, and this does not imply that the woman is subordinate to the man, or sister to brother. It is all essentially considered to be a characteristic of having "unhu" and a social interaction within the context of "unhu". The demands imposed upon men within the context of "unhu" are more physically demanding than that placed upon the woman.
Under "unhu" children are never orphans since the roles of mother and father are by definition not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with "unhu" will never allow any child around them to be an orphan.
The concept of "unhu" also constitutes the kernel of African Traditional Jurisprudence as well as leadership and governance. In the concept of unhu, a crime committed by one individual on another extends far beyond the two individuals and has far-reaching implications to the people from among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes. Unhu jurisprudence tends to support remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. For instance, a crime of murder would lead to the creation of a bond of marriage between the victim's family and the accused's family in addition to the perpetrator being punished both inside and outside his social circles. The role of "tertiary perpetrator" to the murder crime is extended to the family and the society where the individual perpetrator hails from. However, the punishment of the tertiary perpetrator is a huge fine and a social stigma, which they must shake off after many years of demonstrating unhu or ubuntu. A leader who has unhu is selfless and consults widely and listens to subjects. Such a person does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from the subjects and lives among them and shares property. A leader who has "unhu" does not lead, but allows the people to lead themselves
- Interviewed by Tim Modise, copyright by Canonical Ltd.--transcription: "In the old days, when we were young, a traveler through the country would stop at a village, and he didn't have to ask for food or for water; once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of ubuntu, but it will have various aspects."
- "About the Name". Official Ubuntu Documentation. Canonical. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
- see also Zulu noun classes on Wiktionary.
- in the sense of an abstract quality. The sense "mankind" is taken by the class 7 collective noun isintu.
- Christian B.N. Gade, "The Historical Development of the Written Discourses on Ubuntu", South African Journal of Philosophy 30(3), 303–329.
- Gade, C.B.N. 2012. "What is Ubuntu? Different Interpretations among South Africans of African Descent", South African Journal of Philosophy 31(3), 484–503. 
- Eze, M.O. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa, pp. 190–191
- Eze, M.O. What is African Comunitarianism? Against consensus as a regulative Ideal. 2008, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 27:4, pp. 386–399