In South Africa, we explore Ubuntu, which puts humanity and cooperation above selfishness. Could it address today’s social and ecological challenges?

Contributes to achieving the following UN Sustainable Development Goals:

“Over there is a basket of apples,” the teacher tells her students. “Whoever gets there first can have them. Ready? Go!” Something miraculous happens. The children don’t run for it, but take each other’s hands, walk to the basket, and distribute the apples among everyone. One of the children explains, “How can one be happy if everyone else has nothing? Ubuntu”.

This is how the African philosophy of Ubuntu was roughly explained to us. In essence, Ubuntu is about looking after one another and community. It’s about cooperating instead of competing. Once in South Africa, we are eager to learn more and see how this philosophy exists in the daily lives of African communities. We wonder – can we find real-life examples in a country that is plagued by corruption and crime? And if so, what lessons can we learn?

Meeting the Zulus

Deep inside the Imfolozi Game reserve, our guide Mphile shows us the way, literally and figuratively. She guides us through the bush as we hike in a single file behind her. At frequent intervals, she explains the habits of different animals, the function of plants, and the relationships between them. When she talks about the animals, she calls them brothers and sisters.

“Do you know why we often see zebras, impalas, and giraffes together? The animals help each other. Giraffes, with their long necks, are masters of keeping a lookout for predators. In case of danger, they warn the others. Nature is as much survival of the fittest as it is cooperation,” she says. “Ubuntu”. This word also comes up during the meal when she shares what she has just prepared. “Sharing is caring,” she says with a smile.

Mphile is a member of the Zulu community. When we later visit her in her village in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, she explains what Ubuntu means to her. “Humanity”, she says. “I am because I am a part of a community”. In other words, the deep-rooted African philosophy is about sharing and caring and the awareness that we are all connected. “This philosophy is very much alive within the Zulu community,” Mphile says. “We help each other whenever possible. With food, housing, or money. Within the family, of course, but also within the village. I work at the park, but some of my relatives have no job. Unemployment is a big problem in South Africa. I help my relatives by sharing my income.” Mphile adds that “Nowadays, some people are more self-centered, so they don’t practice Ubuntu anymore. It’s a pity because it is a beautiful concept that was passed on to us from our ancestors.”

Ubuntu in Africa and Beyond

Back on board we speak to Annette Nobuntu Mul via zoom. Although she is a Dutchwoman, she feels strongly connected to Africa. Deeply touched by examples of Ubuntu that she encountered in South Africa, she founded the Ubuntu Society in the Netherlands to promote Ubuntu beyond Africa. Annette is convinced that Ubuntu can work anywhere and indeed should be applied on a global scale. She explains that the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a great supporter of Ubuntu. According to him, it is no coincidence that Ubuntu originated in Africa. Human survival was particularly difficult there because of harsh climates, severe droughts, parasites, deadly diseases, and large predators. Taking good care of each other increased the chances of survival for everyone. Individuals did not survive, only close-knit communities did. Tutu was known for saying: “The man who tries to live alone in Africa has as many chances as a bee flying away from its hive or an ant leaving its nest.” Humans have evolved as social beings and are naturally inclined to help each other, he believed.

It’s that conviction that drives Annette’s efforts, too. “Within our societies, we have become so polarized. What we need is more empathy, more working together towards a common goal. That common goal is about making sure we live in harmony with each other and the planet. Ubuntu also means thinking about the future generations!” she proclaims. We would soon find out that South Africa’s recent past proves her right.

Hardship and Forgiveness

After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, we moor in the heart of Cape Town and visit Robben Island. “What a tragic place this is”, Ivar sighs when we learn how South Africa’s traumatic history over the centuries has left its mark here. The seals of the island were slaughtered by the Dutch in the 17th century. The island soon became a prison for insurgents and later a leper colony. From the 1960s onwards it was again used as a prison. Political prisoners, specifically those who fought against apartheid, the institutionalized system of racial segregation, were held there under circumstances akin to a concentration camp.

Today it is a museum. An ex-convict tells us about the inhumane conditions under which he and many others including Nelson Mandela were imprisoned here. Despite hardship, the future president of South Africa chose forgiveness and reconciliation over revenge and hatred. Because of this, he is widely credited for avoiding carnage once apartheid was abolished. “If we fight, our children lose,” he stated. His inspiration: Ubuntu.

Truth and Reconciliation

Shortly after Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison, apartheid came to an end. In 1994, the first democratic elections were won by the African National Congress (ANC) and Mandela became president. Desmond Tutu, being a staunch campaigner against apartheid, was appointed as chairman of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This commission heard witnesses and investigated the crimes committed during the apartheid regime. If the perpetrators told the whole truth about the crimes they were involved in, they were given amnesty. Desmond Tutu believed not only in the power of forgiveness, but also in the cleansing power perpetrators could experience by admitting guilt. Although there is still criticism that some leading figures have gone unpunished and victims have not been fully compensated, the commission’s work did reveal the previously unknown fates of many victims. This in turn paved the way for reconciliation and freedom for all.

Ubuntu in Practice

Despite the horrors of colonization and apartheid, the Ubuntu philosophy is still very much alive in South Africa. We hear about people who donate food or volunteer for the community, pay the school fees of their employees’ children, and one doctor specifically who sets up clinics in underprivileged neighborhoods to provide medical care to the poorest. In these examples and others, we see again how human existence is most meaningful when relationships exist with between one and other.

We visit a poignant example of Ubuntu in practice in Cape Town: the Amy Foundation. It is named after American student Amy Biehl, a gifted and dynamic young woman who was committed to making a difference in South Africa. She worked tirelessly with members of the ANC at the Community Law Center at the University of the Western Cape on the new constitution and women’s rights and helped register voters for the country’s first free elections in 1994. On August 25th, 1993 Amy Biehl was tragically killed during political violence by a mob. Four young men were convicted of her murder but Amy’s parents, determined to honor Amy’s belief in the truth and reconciliation process, pled for their release. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission agreed and released them after five years in prison.

Amy’s parents carried on her legacy and established a foundation to support underprivileged young people. Two of the convicts even went on to work for the foundation. Director Kevin Chaplin, who is also the founder of the Ubuntu Foundation in South Africa, explains that each quarter they help more than 1,000 young people of different ages through after school activities, education, training and internships. He shows us around one their training centers where spiring hospitality managers take cooking classes, young women learn how to sew or give manicures and young men learn how to become carpenters. There is strong focus on entrepreneurship, so we also visit a class that’s offered on how to run a business. “The training they get here gives them a better chance in the labor market and helps them start building a career”, Kevin explains. “It’s amazing what difference a little humanity can bring in someone’s life.” We couldn’t agree more.

Continuous Struggle

How is it possible that despite the wonderful philosophy of Ubuntu, there is so much corruption and crime in South Africa? When we ask Kevin about it, he describes the blatant corruption and clientelism that stemmed from the administration of the former president, Zuma. “Fortunately, things seem to be getting better under the current government, but it is a continuous struggle,” Kevin adds.

“However, it seems that there are also more structural economic issues,” Ivar points out when we are back on board. Writer Naomi Klein convincingly argues in her book The Shock Doctrine that in the mid-1990s Nelson Mandela and his government were given little room by large international capital providers, the IMF and international trade agreements to redistribute wealth in the new South Africa. Poverty and unemployment remained high and even worsened. This has undoubtedly contributed to the growth of crime. In addition to the political arena, there seems to be a continuous economic power struggle as well.

We Are Because the Earth Is

As a life philosophy, Ubuntu challenges individualism, selfishness and hatred. It enlarges the circle of the “we” to all people. But can we also extend that circle to non-human life? After all, we now live in a different time than when Ubuntu came into being. Nature has been tamed by humans. These days we destroy biodiversity, disrupt the climate, and pollute the ecosystems we need for our survival. Desmond Tutu surely thought so: “We need to widen the circle of our Ubuntu, as we become aware of the totality of what we are. Our bodies extend into the soil, into the air, into the rivers and oceans. Our families include our dogs, cats, horses, cattle. Our species is a cell in a larger organism, a planetary body that functions to maintain life on earth. Let us practice planetary Ubuntu. We are because the Earth is.”

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