What is Ubuntu?

Ubuntu (/ʊˈbntʊ/ uu-boon-tuuZulu 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 propagated in the Africanisation (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 popularised to English language readers by Desmond Tutu (1999).

Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered a definition in a 1999 book:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from 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.

Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008:

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.

Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows:

A traveller through a 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 and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?