The challenge of ‘ubuntu’

By Rev Fiona Bennett (From Seeds March 2022)

Over the last few months, I feel I have come across the word ‘ubuntu’ many times. Ubuntu is a word which appears in varied forms in several African languages. I have read it translated to mean ‘a person is a person through other people’.

One of the places I came across this word was reading The Book of Forgiving by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. They understand that seeing ourselves and others from the perspective of ubuntu is part of what can enable the winding process of forgiveness. Indeed, the concept was used in South Africa in the 1990s as a guiding ideal for the transition from apartheid, in which Desmond Tutu took a leading role.

Ubuntu even 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 victimisation’.

Ubuntu is a way of seeing ourselves not as autonomous isolated units, but recognising that our very humanity comes from our connection with others. I think, in a culture such as ours, where a lot of emphasis is placed on our individual responsibility and perhaps even entitlement, this concept is alien and challenging. But could it be living water offered from African wisdom to very dry European souls?

As we emerge from the pandemic, in which were periods where there was a great emphasis on supporting each other and getting through it together, we seem to be slipping into a time where my right to choose if I wear a mask is outweighing my responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

Ubuntu challenges us to recognise that how we behave, how we perceive the world, even who we are, is bigger than individual choice, and yet our individual choices can play key parts in the whole.

The concept of ubuntu changed the course of history in how it shaped the transition in South Africa. What could it bring to our world today if we allow it to shape us, our church, our society and our world?