Ubuntu: A Brief History

Prior to 1994 I don’t think many English speaking people had heard the term ubuntu, but it seems now to form part of the vocabulary of most, if not all South Africans. But where does the word come from and what does it really mean?

The Zulu word ubuntu appears in South African sources from as early as the mid-19th Century, so it’s a concept that has been around a long time! The word by itself can be directly translated as ‘humanity’, but it’s inclusion as part of a larger sentence is actually how most of us understand the meaning. The phrase, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” translates approximately to ‘I am because we are’, and it’s this sense of interconnectedness and community that forms the basis of what’s become known as Ubuntuism. The philosophy first gained popularity in 1950s when it appeared in the magazine, Drum, but it was really during the 1990s, during the transition from apartheid to a democratically elected government, that it gained world-wide recognition.

Despite the term being so well used, it’s a philosophy that’s difficult to give a closed definition to. There are many different, and not always compatible, definitions of what ubuntu is. Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered his view on Ubuntuism a few years back:

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

The philosophy was also embraced by former president Nelson Mandela and forms part of the Constitution of South Africa. Click here to hear what Mandela had to say on the topic.

Image courtesy of the Steve Biko Foundation.


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