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Drucilla Cornell: Exploring Ubuntu –– Tentative Reflections

1. Introduction

In March, the Ubuntu Project, a project developed out of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, held a one-day conference to discuss the role of ubuntu in the new South Africa, and particularly the feasibility of translating ubuntu into law. Our article has a modest goal: we seek mainly to articulate the central questions raised in that conference and deepen the possible significance of those questions for a nuanced constitutional jurisprudence in South Africa.

Ubuntu is a controversial value or ideal in South Africa. Philosophers such as Augustine Shutte have forcefully argued that ubuntu should be adopted as a new ethic for South Africa. On the other hand, critics of ubuntu have made a number of arguments against those who would make ubuntu an essential ethical ideal or moral value in the new South Africa. Broadly construed those criticisms range from the claim that ubuntu was once a meaningful value but now gives nothing to young South Africans to the claim that ubuntu is inherently patriarchical and conservative. Still others argue that ubuntu is such a bloated concept that it means everything to everyone, and as bloated concept it should not be translated into a constitutional principle. Although ubuntu was included in the epilogue of the interim constitution there have not been many attempts to incorporate ubuntu into postapartheid jurisprudence. Where courts have referred to ubuntu they treated it as a ‘uni-dimensional’ concept and not as a philosophical doctrine.

The debate over whether or not ubuntu can be translated into a justiciable principle turns not only on the definition ones gives to ubuntu but also on how and why ubuntu can be.



The relevance to political theory of the ubuntu project

Africanists have long noted that “development” in Africa would have to rely on innovative forms of democratization and modernization that would recognize the fundamental significance of colonial rule and more specifically, the recognition of the mechanisms of colonial rule through the divisions between a white citizenry with full civil rights and “native” subjects ruled by a customarily organized tribal authority (Mamdami, 1996). Mahmood Mamdami has been exemplary in his analysis of how this bifurcated state demands that what have often been seen as binary opposites, rights and custom, representation and participation, civil society and ethical communities, have to be creatively re-linked, both in theory, and on the ground. As Mamdami always reminds us, the practice of Native Authorities under colonialism always led to contradictory results. On the one hand, Native Authorities sought to subject the peoples of Africa to a so-called customary law that was in fact writ large by the colonial rulers, and was therefore a way to rule them by supposedly supporting their own customs and values. The customary was always profoundly entangled with the mechanisms of indirect rule.


From the beginning of the ubuntu project, my primary interest was to examine whether or not the proliferation of ubuntu discourses in politics, law, and indeed on television and popular culture more generally, could be considered a crucial aspect of the democratization of the customary in South Africa, or alternatively, as it is viewed by its skeptics, as an empty signifier that has been cynically deployed by its proponents to promote and thus capture young black South Africans in the commercialism and consumerism of advanced global capitalism. From the beginning of the project however, it was a curiosity to me that the cynics did not see that the widespread use of ubuntu, everywhere from beauty shops to television, at least signaled its political and ethical potency. Why would one use a signifier unless it was expected to have political, moral, and emotional force? As I wrote in my last report, through a continuing series of interviews, it has become evident to me that ubuntu may well be part of the democratization of so-called traditionalism. Painted with a broad brush, ubuntu can potentially be mobilized to infuse moral being through an imaginative recollection of a purportedly uniquely South African ethic that sees our humanity as operating against and creating a force field oppositional to the values of advanced global capitalism associated with the “West”. On one level, what Jean and John Comaroff have written about civil society can also be said about ubuntu. “Intrinsically protean, it is an immanent construct whose manifest materiality exists only to the extent that it is named, objectified, and sought after” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1999, 6). But this on the other hand is not to write that ubuntu ultimately means nothing. The immanent potential of ubuntu is inseparable from its connection to who we are as ethical beings, and this interactive ethic, as I described it in my last report, is always being brought forward in a struggle with how we realize our humanity. But humanity is always denoted ethically; to use a well-coined Wittgensteinian phrase, the “language games” in which ubuntu is encompassed are ethical and moral in character.


Let me give an example to clarify what I mean by the ethical “nature” of debates around ubuntu. The young women who have served as my native informants, and have helped me to organize the interviews have proceeded to attempt the formation of an ubuntu women’s center. As part of that process, we contacted various NGOs. In the course of meeting with Ikamva Labantu, the question was raised by the NGO affiliates that ubuntu as an inclusive ideal of humanity would have to reject the exclusiveness of a women’s center. The young women, on the other hand, argued that an ubuntu women’s center was ethically consistent with the ideal of humanity promoted by ubuntu, while recognizing that the inclusive nature of ubuntu would have to shape the form of women’s politics practiced by the center. The debate was about the ethical meaning of the ideal of humanity assumed in ubuntu, as it was to inform the practice of this center. But the debate took place within the shared assumption that ubuntu as an immanent possibility for the shaping of our humanity was ethical in nature. As the Comaroffs have emphasized, “The ongoing reevaluation of signs has always been a palpable feature of African creativity” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993, xxii). In this sense, it is not surprising to find ubuntu, even if broadly understood as humanity, coming under a reevaluation by young women, some with explicitly feminist aspirations.


Of course, much work still needs to be done to try to unfold more precisely the role of ubuntu in legal, political, and cultural discourse on the ground in South Africa today. The March meeting, sponsored by the University of Pretoria Law School, which will look more explicitly at the use of ubuntu in legal decisions as this is in turn related to day-to-day ethical discourse in South Africa, will be part of the project of trying to deepen my understanding of the role ubuntu plays in South African life. But we can at least make some preliminary observations relevant to political theory today.


Much of recent Anglo-American, and indeed even European, political philosophy has remained embroiled in neatly boxed off discourses that pit the individual against the community, democracy against the moral and the ethical, rights as an undesirable limit on political struggle. In my recent trip, as I participated as an honorary member of the preliminary executive committee of the ubuntu women’s center, it became clear to me that this deadlock between, for example, defending the ethical and the moral as limits on the political, or alternatively rejecting the ethical and the moral – including legal rights – as an impediment to the political, was not weighing down the discussion in the way that it has so often burdened discussions both in theory and in practice in what we now loosely think of as the West. Throughout the many discussions and meetings it became clear that ubuntu as integral to an ethically imagined humanity that guides the struggle to give “it” an actual shape was not pitted against politics, i.e. the formation of an ubuntu women’s center, but was instead seen in a profound sense as what the politics were about. “African feminism”, as one young woman put it, “is about ubuntu. And ubuntu is what makes our feminism African.” If Mamdami reminds us that the bifurcated state can only be reformed and democratized by innovative experiments in the political imagination that do not take European concepts such as civil society, the person, the nation-state, for granted, then we would expect that in these experiments, we might find the material to help us form new ways of theorizing about what seem to be the indispensable concepts of political theory. The ubuntu project is no longer only geared to understanding ubuntu in South African life, but also the way in which the study of ubuntu may help those of us who are political theorists in reconceiving some of these basic concepts and fundamental relationships.


A preliminary summation of the Ubuntu project


I spent the month of August in Stellenbosch and Kayamandi to begin a pilot study of ubuntu. Through initial discussions with academics in diverse fields, it became clear that there was both controversy and scepticism surrounding ubuntu. The purpose of the pilot was directed towards examining the basis of both the controversy and the scepticism and to see whether there was a valuable project to be found in a critical re-examination of ubuntu, both within the history and current political reality of South Africa, and more broadly in a global context shaped as it has been in postcolonial struggles for national independence and indeed for the reshaping of the idea of the nation itself. Let me summarize the scepticism as follows: there are three forms of scepticism, an ethical-philosophical critique of the concept itself, a political rejection of ubuntu as conservative and indeed patriarchal, and the scepticism that ubuntu is an important ethic in the black community, particularly amongst young blacks. I framed these three forms of scepticism in questions that I actually used in the interviews. Let me spell out in more detail sceptical arguments against ubuntu. Starting with the first, ubuntu is a bloated concept that includes everything and anything from freedom to care to justice and equality, therefore it ultimately “collapses under the weight of the expectations”. Even if ubuntu can be specified and defined, it is simply a local version of already established Western values. A more specific criticism is that ubuntu, when used by the judiciary in South Africa, not only essentializes South African culture as homogenous and without contest, but complacently uses the homogenized view of culture to shut out dissenting opinions and debate. Another view is that the black community even if once held on to ubuntu, as a fundamental value or ethic, no longer does so under the pressures of modern life and commercial capitalism. Those who, on the contrary, believe that ubuntu still has hold on the black community, fear that is has been cynically manipulated, say for example by corporations to create a black culture that legitimates exploitation in the workplace. Finally, if ubuntu is associated with tribal culture, and indeed with rural rather than urban values, it becomes implicated in patriarchal and other hierarchies.


Background to the interviews


If the first part of my work was to try to get a grasp on what was the basis of the scepticism of ubuntu, the second task I set for myself was addressing whether or not ubuntu was a living value and ethic in the black townships, particularly amongst the young people who had supposedly fallen away from traditional South African tribal or rural values. I decided then to explore whether or not ubuntu has ontological depth in the black community, because if the answer was no, then there would seem little or no point in trying to revive it, even if at one time historically it might have provided a potential alternative to the neo-liberal values associated with the nation-states of the North. To do this, I felt it necessary to create a team of what anthropologists would call ‘informants’ to help me begin an exploration of that question of both what ubuntu is as an ethic and whether or not it continues to shape both individual and collective life in the townships. A team of four women, Tebogo Mazibuko, Zoliswa Kafile, Bulelwas Matiuana, and Phelo Ntshokokwana, agreed to be interviewed by me and, given their commitment to ubuntu, agreed to work with me both as translators, and as independent interviewers. In my absence, they have continued the interviews primarily in Kayamandi, although interviews have also been conducted in Soweto and the several townships outside of Capetown. There are five core questions that were asked and continue to be asked in the interviews, but some of the interviews are quite long, since one of the points of these interviews was to draw out the meaning of ubuntu. See attachment for those questions.


Semiotics and Methodology


There are of course innumerable methodological, as well as political and ethical, issues all familiar to anthropologists, raised by the approach I took to ubuntu. I am white, a citizen of the United States, and English speaker who does not speak either Xhosa or Zulu. Further, I am an outsider to the history and politics of the reconstitution of South Africa, so of course who I am and how I was seen had to be incorporated into the structure of the interview itself. This incorporation, if you like, of self-reflexivity into the interview does not by any means resolve all the complex issues into what it means to be in a position of studying the Other, and yet it is a necessary first step in any attempt to introduce perspectives on ubuntu as these relate to race, class, gender, and other hierarchies both within South Africa and without. Of course there are innumerable questions that have been raised about the structure of interviewing as opposed to participant observation in the literature of anthropology that is well known. There is no ultimate methodological response to these problems and these questions, at least not one that I can see. But there is however, a possibility of the opening up of power as this informs all of these hierarchies, and indeed as it informs the very process of interviewing and talking into a tape-recorder. Let me be clear here, there are not simply negative, but also positive connotations. For example, what does it mean for many women to have their voice taken so seriously that it is she and not the interviewer who is put in the position of one who defines the object of study, in this case, ubuntu. Since the interviews have continued in my absence, we will be able to contrast those to the ones in which I was present.


Of course, there is also a philosophical question of how one even hopes to study a value or ethic like ubuntu because it cannot easily be reduced to a positive reality translatable into a set of working hypotheses. In short answer, the best solution I have to the problem of how one studies the habitus of life that makes up a symbolic community is the work of Charles Pierce on semiotics. Pierce brilliantly shows us that signs, as they are habituated in an actual community, are integrally linked and find expression both through their enactment in social relations and institutions and in their articulation as signs. These signs are not sequestered as concepts since they do not necessarily reach that level of sedimentation, but are inevitably and vulnerably exposed to the daily contest, both political and ethical, in the traffic of signs. Pierce shows us in other words, that signs, including the signs of an ethical practice, are part of the light of day, and yet are also given shape and perhaps even brought to full consciousness when conscious reflection is demanded of them. An interview then, can be understood not only as an encounter between self and other, but also the inevitable imposition of the demand that the person interviewed reflect on a symbol or a set of signs so as to give them meaning. That such a communicative encounter is possible, as I clearly believe it is, undermines the view that any set of signs or symbols is hermetically sealed. Pierce’s analysis of how signs can be analyzed always points towards a future implied in any contest over meaning including the kind of contest which is inseparable from an interview about an ethic or a value such as ubuntu. I worked with E. Valentine Daniel’s notion of culture, whose fieldwork has also been influenced by Charles Pierce. “Culture, or more precisely, a culture, is understood here-in to be constituted of those webs of relatively regnant and generative signs of habit, spun in the communicative act engaged in by the anthropologist and his or her informants, in which the anthropologist strives to defer to the creativity of his informants and self-consciously reflects upon the difference inherent in this creative product of deference.” What I will present here as the meaning of ubuntu is inseparable from the context, here the context including an inevitable imposition on the interviewees that they reflect on ubuntu. Indeed part of the reason that I believe in the ubuntu project is that the explicit incorporation of a dialogic structure opens us from the very beginning to the dynamic political contest over the meaning of the sign ubuntu. Pierce then can help us both understand how there is a symbolic reality that is ‘there’, and thus allows us to challenge the idea that a variable like ubuntu simply cannot be studied, and yet also helps us to understand why the study itself is always both ethical and political, whether or not it involves so explicitly the hierarchies I described earlier.


My team of translators and interviewers are now in the process of completing negotiations for land in Kayamandi, for the creation and establishment of an ubuntu women’s center. The development of this explicitly political and ethical project, which came completely from the young women involved and not at all from myself, is now of course part of the contest and political struggle over the meaning and future of ubuntu. This is then an obvious example of how politics and ethics are both implicated in any study of a word both so fraught with meaning and with worry such as ubuntu.


Summation of the interviews


Let me summarize the results of the interviews, knowing that the limited nature of the sample makes what I write tentative at best. First and foremost, ubuntu remained at the very heart of how the young black South Africans that I interviewed saw ethics and politics. Although I interviewed people from all walks of life, due to the age of the women I worked with, and to the limited time I had, I focused on younger people. This focus was in part to address the scepticism about the relationship of young blacks in the townships to ubuntu. We of course need to do much more work in more townships, before anything but tentative conclusions can be drawn. But I would like to stress, the deep emotive commitment to ubuntu that came out in the interviews. This sentiment is expressed in statements like, “I think of the meaning of my life through ubuntu”, “ubuntu tells me who I am and how I am doing in the world”, “ubuntu will only die when I do”, and “it is at the core of my being”.

All of these statements go to the first perspective I described in my initial proposal, in that they envisage the spirit or character of the human being through ubuntu. In each and every one of the interviews, however, statements that carried that kind of emotive connection were made in response to the question - what does ubuntu mean to you? But of course, in order to answer the question, what does ubuntu mean to you?, we necessarily need to ask the question, what does ubuntu mean? Is for example, the skepticism that ubuntu is a hopelessly bloated concept warranted? Is it alternatively, just a local version of some of the most important Western values such as dignity, freedom, and equality?


I want to at least tentatively flesh out a configuration of the meaning of ubuntu, as it was defined in the interviews, that begins to answer these two forms of skepticism. What meaning was given to ubuntu in the interviews? Again, always understanding meaning to have the dynamic, dialogic character that Pierce eloquently articulates. First, ubuntu marks out a point of resistance to Western identified notions of the individual and correspondingly, of social life. This resistance is defined through various interpretations of the expression that “a person only becomes a person through other people.” This however is not a simple form of communalism or communitarianism, for what is at stake here is a process of becoming a person, and how one becomes a person. Perhaps the best way for someone engaged in Western philosophy to understand this is that how we are with each other is a modality of ‘being in the world’ in Heidegger’s sense. A modality of existence implies and interactive ethic in which who we can become is inevitably intertwined not with some static entity called community, but with actual day-to-day interactions with each other. The community then, in a sense, is always being formed through the enactment of an ethic of being with others, and therefore, it is not something that is either above and beyond the individual, or something that encompasses him or her, but is best understood as a dynamic process in which both the community and the individual are always coming into being differently.


Two, if we understand ubuntu as analogous but not identical to a modality of being with others, as fundamental to individuation, then how we are together entails a strong notion of responsibility towards one another. This responsibility implies that each one of us is at every moment responsible for making up our togetherness, and that this cannot be done in the notion of the social contract, which implies a prior individuality and the concept of reciprocity that goes with it. Put simply, ubuntu demands that you go first, and not worry about the problem of the ‘free rider’, because being together is irreducible to the idea of tit-for-tat, or that I must guarantee that there will be some reciprocity before I give to the other. Although Toni Morrison is an African-American writer, she beautifully describes the solidarity that grows out of ‘going-first’. To quote a recent interview with her in the New Yorker, “The women she worked with, in particular, became some of her closest friends. ‘Single women with children,’ she said, when I asked her about that era. ‘If you had to finish writing something, they’d take your kids, or you’d sit with theirs. This was a network of women. They lived in Queens, in Harlem and Brooklyn, and you could rely on one another. If I made a little extra money on something—writing freelance—I’d send a check to Toni Cade with a note that said, ‘You have won the so-and-so grant,’ and so on. I remember Toni Cade coming to my house with groceries and cooking dinner. I hadn’t asked her.” To return to the interviews, which clearly resonate with the sensibility Morrison describes, “a person with ubuntu is the one whose path to their house is always broken in with the many footprints of those who have gone in and out”. “If someone had to ask me for water when I can see that they are thirsty, I have failed to be a person of ubuntu, I have failed to treat the other person with ubuntu. If someone says to me, you have not acted with ubuntu, then I have already blown it. It is up to me to know what ubuntu is, and to treat others in accordance with it.” “What comes in by the kitchen door will someday be returned to me through the back window”. The last quote may sound like ‘what goes around comes around’, but it is more proactive in that the togetherness we are bringing into being and the solidarity we build in our relationships with each other, in taking responsibility for each other, is what allows us to live with a sensibility of support rather than isolation.

Three ubuntu, again coming out of the interviews, forcibly rejects judgments of inferiority and not just based on race and class. If we only become a person through other persons, even something that would usually be conceived as an attribute of an individual such as intelligence, is instead redefined through the modality of being with others that both enhances and supports creativity and critical thinking. Again to quote one of the interviews, “a person is only as dumb as the society she lives in”. In this way, ubuntu goes beyond formal or even substantive equality to the degree that they try to pull out attributes shared by persons and compare them. My guess is that this radical egalitarianism is how ubuntu comes to be associated with ‘African socialism’ in that it carries with it the idea that people are not only entitled to their dreams, they can fulfill them if they are supported not only with resources, but with the care and support that allows them to become who they seek to be.

Over and over again in the interviews, the phrase ‘the discipline of freedom’ was repeated. Discipline seemingly has two aspects. First in that if my freedom is tied to the freedom of all, since how we are together makes up what freedom is, then I must accept discipline in achieving freedom for all. This notion of discipline clearly carries within it the actual experience of political struggle, not seen as sacrifice, but as the continuous revision of how we are together so as to challenge judgments of inferiority that would predetermine in advance a human being’s life chances. Freedom then, is not freedom ‘from’; it is freedom to be together in a way that enhances everyone’s capability to transform themselves and their society. Hence we can understand Nelson Mandela’s interesting statement: “Freedom is indivisible. The chains on any one of my people are the chains on all of them. The chains on all of my people are the chains on me.” Freedom then, is necessarily a collective undertaking, and part of the discipline of freedom is to understand it as such. We can now begin to see how ubuntu as character building is associated with justice and equality, but in a sense that Heidegger would have understood as the very root of our phenomenological existence with one another. Without justice, without all of us transforming ourselves so as to be together in freedom, our individuality will always be thwarted since we cannot but be in that field of unfreedom. Again to quote Mandela, “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred. He is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrowmindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”


Four, humanity and humanness were words constantly repeated in the interviews. Is humanity an ideal or an idea as in Kant? In one sense, yes, in that ubuntu as it is associated with justice, is something to live up to. On the other hand, the dynamic interactive ethic that ubuntu expresses has as much to do with reshaping our humanness through the modality of being together as it does with defining what are, for example, the essential attributes of human nature that make us moral beings. This understanding that our humanness is shaped in our interactions with one another and within a force field created and sustained by those interactions, explains one of the most interesting aspects of ubuntu, which is the idea that one’s humanness can be diminished by the violent actions of others, including the violent actions of the state. We can at least make sense of why ubuntu was so crucial in the decision rejecting the constitutionality of the death penalty in South Africa. In a society in which the death penalty is allowed, then, state murder is clearly institutionalized, and this form of vengeance becomes part of the field in which we have to operate.


In one of the most moving interviews, a woman who had participated in the Soweto uprisings described her horror as she watched her humanity “leak out of her”, because she was a witness to a ‘necklacing’. If I am only a person for other persons, if my humanity is always shaped by your humanity, and your commitment to mine, then we can all be diminished when one of us treats another human being as if they were other than human. Dignity is also another word that was frequently used in the interviews, and it clearly resonated, as did humanity, with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. But again, I believe there is a thread here that we can weave back through interpreting ubuntu as an interactive ethic and as a modality of existence, which highlights the dignity of each person as what allows them to hold their head up high. For example, my tour guide who took me through a squatter’s camp in Soweto said that begging goes against ubuntu, it goes against the dignity of the person. “If you want to give these children money, give it to me so I can buy food, or give it to them in return for something they do for you.” In other words, how one cares for others is as important as whether they seek to help in the first place. If I “go first” by throwing money at a child or an adult, I have not respected their ubuntu, or their dignity, because I have treated them as someone less than myself, in the sense that I have presumed something about who they are and what they can be that reduces them to a “beggar”. This is not so much a worry about scamming, as it is that both the person to whom I throw the money and myself have failed in our responsibility to try to get to the root of why this individual is a beggar. Thus, in a sense, the tour guide’s comment to me reemphasized the centrality of responsibility in the discipline of freedom that for him was integral to maintaining the being-in-common of the squatter’s camp so necessary for their survival.


Five, if we can at least tentatively postulate that ubuntu is an ethical modality of being together, then the very dynamic and interactive nature of this ethic makes it seemingly uncapturable by any set of rules or norms. This uncapturability is what I meant earlier that ubuntu, as an interactive ethic, is a sliding signifier within the symbolic reality which gives it meaning. Precisely because it is not connected to any set of integral rules, this has perplexed many anthropologists who have tried to study it. For example, does it go against ubuntu if I do not look you in the eye when I greet you? As one waitress in the Mugg and Bean commented, “If when I approach your table, you do not look at me when you greet me, then you have not treated me with ubuntu.” But another young woman explained, “If I pass an older woman in the street, and look her directly in the eye, I have not treated her with ubuntu”. Looking someone in the eye, then, is obviously not an integral norm of ubuntu, yet in certain contexts, looking someone in the eye, or not looking someone in the eye, is exactly what is demanded of you. This seemingly slippery nature of ubuntu, which was often brought up to me by skeptics of ubuntu itself, may actually salvage it from the critique that it is inherently conservative, in that it is based on traditional tribal notions and inseparable from patriarchal hierarchies. If ubuntu was associated with certain hierarchies in tribal culture, and I would need to interview many more people of rural South Africa before I could comment on the accuracy of this belief, it is clear that its incorporation into the ANC has brought with it the radical egalitarianism that I described earlier. Thus my tentative conclusion is that it is much more likely to be a disruptive signifier of such hierarchies. But the appeal to ubuntu is still done in the name, as I said in point one, of respecting what is African, or South African, as opposed to what is Western. Thus ubuntu, in an interesting way, both speaks from tradition, and against it at the same time, if one assumes or means by tradition that there are certain hierarchies inherent in it. To understand ubuntu then, we do not need to have an essentialist view of culture, or even of African culture. As one young man stated it, “African culture is how I am, but how I am makes African culture what it is, and what it can give to the world.”


Again, coming out of the work of Charles Pierce, we can understand how naming something African or South African does not have to implicate us in essentialism, because by so doing, we give significance to a symbolic field. This can obviously be a political as well as ethical gesture, as much as it is an attempt to make a truth claim that this is or is not African. The point here is that we need to be careful in how we describe some particular symbol, value, or practice, as African. “To assert the existence of an African culture is not to promote claims of its superiority over other cultures, nor is it to suggest that only Africans can participate in it or that none of its terms overlap with, or are replicated in, the cultural packages of others. Similarly, the label ‘Western culture’ need not imply a judgment of value or acknowledge the sanctity of the boundaries of such culture. The fact that we are all able to participate, across boundaries, in one another’s cultural repertoire does not to my mind compel conclusion that the labels themselves are meaningless.” My preliminary investigations seem to point to ubuntu as being at the heart of political and ethical contest in South Africa, precisely because as an existential modality of being-together, it continues to frame, at least for the South Africans I interviewed, the way they thought of themselves and their responsibility to the ‘New South Africa’.


Projects for the future


1) The ubuntu women’s center


On the initiative of the four young women with whom I worked, land will be purchased in Kayamandi to form an ubuntu women’s center. The center will be run as a shosholoza, or “work as one”, i.e. through teamwork. There are several other ubuntu “stokvels” in Kayamandi. Again, the idea of running the women’s center as a “stokvel” came from the women themselves, as I did not even know what a “stokvel” was before coming to South Africa. Ubuntu Tasté is another such “stokvel” in Kayamandi. Ubuntu Tasté was just getting off the ground when I interviewed its founders. Most people at the time were still working for free. Ubuntu Tasté plans to be a profit-making organization, but one that intends to share its profits equally with all its workers. At a meeting of the founding group of the ubuntu women’s center, it was clear that the bylaws of the center would reflect both feminism and its commitment to women’s equality, and equality between those who organize and work at the center. The ubuntu women’s center will itself be interesting as it develops to see how far ubuntu, at least under the feminist interpretation it is being given, pushes in the direction of cooperative forms of working together that challenge traditional hierarchies within the workplace. One further aspect for investigation would be how much the “stokvel” structure itself is understood to reflect ubuntu, and how the “stokvels” relate to African socialism.

Professor Kees van der Waal has suggested that we need to critically investigate how ubuntu has potentially been co-opted by the private sector in South Africa in such a way as to curtail and contain workers’ democracy. The ubuntu women’s center, and other cooperative ubuntu “stokvels”, may be an interesting and important contrast to the deployment of the term by African management in more traditional corporations and firms. The center then also shows us how the study of an ideal or value can be tied to its perpetuation and reconfiguration. In itself this is an interesting example of how a study led those involved in it to undertake a commitment to both articulating and institutionalizing their definition of ubuntu.


2) Ubuntu and Law


If it turns out to be correct, as I believe it will, that ubuntu is a living value and an interactive ethic in the townships in South Africa, how ubuntu is defined will be crucial to the politics of South Africa, because it is an important symbol both historically as well as in the present. Obviously we need to examine further the role of ubuntu in the politics and history of the ANC. But if it is a living value in the townships, and in the ANC, then we can expect this investment in it to influence the way it is used in law. In late August, Professor Karin van Marle and myself met with Dr. Simphiwe Mngadi and Professor Vincent Nmehielle. At that meeting, we decided on two projects. First, that we hold a two day conference or meeting to actually address the question of how and why ubuntu has been used in law starting with the post-amble to the 1993 Constitution. At this meeting we hope to invite both those who believe it is important that ubuntu be brought into the legal system, either as an expression of the ‘African’ basis of the South African constitution, or for some other reason, and those critics who argue strongly against the use of ubuntu by the courts, because they see it as a disguised power play that begs the legal questions that are at stake. We intend to hold this meeting at the University of Pretoria, and we hope for extensive participation by the law school there, as well as by judges from all levels of the court system.


3) Philosophy and ubuntu


Our second project would be to hold either several small meetings, or one larger conference, addressing philosophical aspects of ubuntu. One of the fellows involved in the ubuntu project, Professor Vincent Nmehielle, has as his main interest the development of philosophical approaches to how and why a practice or value can and should be named African, with ubuntu being at the heart of such an inquiry. The second aspect that we have already defined is to contrast and compare, as I have done to some degree in this report, ubuntu with other ethical theories such as for example, those developed by Immanuel Kant and Emmanuel Levinas, as well as moral ideas associated with Anglo-American philosophy.


4) Ubuntu and African spirituality


This Christmas I will spend at the house of a Sangoma. One aspect of my time there will be to explore the relationship between African spirituality, as it is practiced in South Africa, to ubuntu. Crucial to this undertaking is to explore the way ubuntu as an interactive ethic is both related to and separable from African spirituality, and yet at the same time, seems to promote respect for the diverse religions in the township.




I hope that STIAS will continue to promote and fund the ubuntu project, including providing funds for the March meeting.




Irma J. Kroeze, “Doing Things with Values II: The Case of Ubuntu” Stellenbosch Law Review, 2002, v.2, 26


Charles Pierce, Pierce On Signs, ed. James Hoopes (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).


E. Valentine Daniel, Fluid Signs, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 13.


See my “Pragmatism, Recollective Imagination, and Transformative Legal Interpretation” in Transformations: Recollective Imagination and Sexual Difference (New York: Routledge, 1993).


For an important exploration of anthropological methods and the writing of Charles Pierce, see E. Valentine Daniel, Fluid Signs, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).


Hilton Als, “Ghosts in the House” New Yorker, October 27, 2003, 70.

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Backbay Books, 1995) 624.



Thandabantu Nhlapo, “African Customary Law of Marriage” in Mahmood Mamdani, ed. Beyond Rights Talk and Culture Talk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000) 140.




Interview Questions


1) Does ubuntu have any meaning for you?


2) If so, how would you define the role of ubuntu in your life?


3) What is your definition of ubuntu?


4) Do you believe that ubuntu plays an important role in the new South Africa?


5) If so, could you describe that role?


Asked to the younger interviewees:

6) A skeptic about ubuntu told me that young black people only care about hip hop and cell phones and that if ubuntu was once important in the black community, it no longer is. How would you respond to that skeptic?


Although these are the questions that were asked in every interview, the interactive nature of the interviews usually involved many more questions as the course of the discussion developed.


I requested that my team of interviewers and translators on whom I was dependent for my contacts in Kayamandi, seek to include people from many walks of life in order that I could get a sense of how ubuntu influenced the way they thought about their job. For example, I was particularly interested in interviewing police, correction officers, teachers, and nurses. I also sought to interview people who were involved in particular political struggles such as the struggle against AIDS and the struggle against privatization to see whether ubuntu influenced their political program. Although the age of the interviewees is diverse, the focus was on younger people. Both because of the age of my informants themselves, and because of the skepticism that even if ubuntu was once important, it had lost its significance to young black people. Clearly one need for funding is to continue to support the interviewers and to allow us to seek a much wider sample of interviewees in different townships.