Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

What Is Ubuntu! Different Interpretations among South Africans of African Descent1

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

What Is Ubuntu! Different Interpretations among South Africans of African Descent1

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this article, I describe and systematize the different answers to the question 'What is ubuntu?' that I have been able to identify among South Africans of African descent (SAADs). I show that it is possible to distinguish between two clusters of answers. The answers of the first cluster all define ubuntu as a moral quality of a person, while the answers of the second cluster all define ubuntu as a phenomenon (for instance a philosophy, an ethic, African humanism, or, a worldview) according to which persons are interconnected. The concept of a person is of central importance to all the answers of both clusters, which means that to understand these answers, it is decisive to raise the question of who counts as a person according to SAADs. I show that some SAADs define all Homo sapiens as persons, whereas others hold the view that only some Homo sapiens count as persons: only those who are black, only those who have been incorporated into personhood, or only those who behave in a morally acceptable manner.

Introduction

The negotiators of the South African Interim Constitution of 1993 agreed that in order to address the divisions and strife of the apartheid era in South Africa, '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 victimization' Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 200 of 1993: Epilogue after Section 251). The Interim Constitution does not explain what ubuntu is, but according to the South African Constitutional Court, which was established to adjudicate in constitutional matters, the spirit of ubuntu is something that is 'part of the deep cultural heritage of the majority of the population' Port Elizabeth Municipality ? Various Occupiers, 2005: § 37). The Court also explains that 'it was against the background of the loss of respect for human life and the inherent dignity which attaches to every person that a spontaneous call has arisen among section of the community for a return to ubuntu' (S ? Makwanyane and Another, 1995: § 227).

So what is the nature of this something called 'ubuntu' that, according to the quotations above, is needed to address the divisions and strife of the apartheid era, is somehow part of the cultural heritage of the majority of the population, and is called for among sections of the community? A number of scholars have explained what they personally, or, what different influential figures such as Desmond Tutu, believe that ubuntu is. But to my knowledge, no one has yet embarked on the task of mapping out the entire landscape of different ideas about the nature of ubuntu that are found among South Africans of African descent (SAADs). The task of drawing such a map may, in some but not all dimensions, be compared to the task of an explorer who wants to make a map of a geographical area that is only familiar to other travelers in parts, and that has never been mapped out in its entirety before. The first map that is created of such an area might lack detail, and the map is likely to be improved by others later on. In this sense, it is unsatisfactory to be the first to draw a map of such an area. In another sense, it is quite satisfactory, since the first map may help other explorers to make better maps of the area in the future. The first map may also be of interest to travelers who have hitherto only taken an interest in some parts of the area, and who may be surprised to find that the landscape looks different in other parts.

In this article, I embark on the project of mapping out the landscape of different ideas about the nature of ubuntu that are found among SAADs. I hope that other scholars will later join in on the project to make the map more detailed. I will begin by offering some reflections on why I have chosen to focus on the SAADs group. Subsequently, I will explore what SAADs believe is the nature of ubuntu, and also how they understand the concept of a person, since this concept is of central importance to the understanding of ubuntu. …

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