Thursday, July 1, 2010


As long as I can remember I have regarded myself as an African.  I was born in Africa, as were my parents.  Their parents were the immigrants – from Scotland, Wales, and Norway.  What is perhaps strange is that emotionally I am attached to the whole continent, not just South Africa. 
In some ways I get more satisfaction from saying “I’m African” than from “I’m South African”.  And I’ve often wondered why.
I think the answer is somehow wrapped up with ubuntu.
Ubuntu is very hard to define because it means different things to different people.  At its core, however, ubuntu means that one is a person only in relation to other people; that one’s person-ness depends on others.  This Zulu saying captures thie idea well: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu ("a person is a person through (other) persons").
Extending the notion further implies that we are all inter-dependent.  As Bishop Desmond Tutu said:
“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 practical ramifications of the ubuntu approach or philosophy are widespread.  For example, in the social domain, extended families are the norm, often including people who are not related.  Kids are the responsibility of the local community, not just the parents.  The elderly are respected, and their advice is sought.
Nelson Mandela tried to describe ubuntu in the following way:
“A traveler 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, entertain 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?”
In the political domain, it is important to achieve consensus and to accomplish this in a manner that is compatible with ubuntu.  The South African Constitution, a remarkable document that has distilled the best of many other constitutions, has the idea of ubuntu as one of its cornerstones.
As I have travelled through Botswana, I have been impressed by the khotla system.  Khotlas are traditional courts, overseen by chiefs and elders, who dispense justice at open meetings of the local villagers.  Local disputes, thefts, marital issues, and so on are the purview of the khotla.  I have always felt that the community involvement in local issues is an offshoot of ubuntu.  (More serious crimes such as murder are tried at the national level.)
South Africa has uncountable numbers of illegal immigrants, mainly from Zimbabwe but also from the rest of Africa.  These people often are better educated than local South Africans, who had to endure the horror of apartheid’s Bantu Education System.  So the illegals often get jobs over the locals.  I think overall sympathy (ubuntu) for the plight of the illegals has resulted in far fewer problems than one could have expected.  “My brothers from the north need, help.  Let’s see what we can do.”
I always warn first-time visitors to Africa that they will inevitably contract an incurable disease – they will want to return!  And each time they return, the disease will get worse.  Obviously part of this is the physical beauty and the wonderful wildlife, but more fundamentally it is because Africa has a different feel to it compared to other parts of the world I have visited.  I think this difference is due to ubuntu.  It permeates Black societies.
I regard myself as an African.  I subscribe to ubuntu.  I believe in it.  This is not only rational, but very much emotional.  Ubuntu is why the whole continent will be pulling for the continent’s last representative, Ghana, in the World Cup.  Including most White South Africans.
I hope the uniquely African philosophy of ubuntu will spread elsewhere.
A person may leave Africa, but Africa will never leave the person.  Ubuntu.

Stan - Thursday


  1. I appreciate the map, Stan. It is nice to have a visual to refer to that is in a handy spot. I am never far from the laptop.

    When my daughter was in the eighth grade, about 20 years ago, her social studies class was geography. After plenty of warning, the teacher gave the students an outline of the African continent. They had to draw the borders and name the countries. She made up a song to keep everything in order. She still bemoans the change in names because her song doesn't work anymore.

    T think people who are poor, no matter where or when, understand ubantu. Poverty creates interdependence. Individuality is a concept bred by affluence, a relative term of course. Communities still come together when there is a need. The need just doesn't arise as much as it did when sharing really did mean giving your neighbor the shirt off your back.

  2. What you say is true, Beth, but ubuntu transcends political borders and includes people and communities one can't even imagine because they are so far away. It is more than the community spirit you so accurately describe - it's essence is African-ness.

  3. What a beautiful and stunning post! I came here as I was looking at another website and found the link and was so pleasantly surprised.

    Today, I went to a local bank branch in the U.S. (East Coast big city) and everyone was watching the tv there, while Uruguay and Ghana were playing soccer. The whole bankful of people, of all nationalities, including me, were cheering on Ghana and got very upset when they lost.

    Next door at a vitamin store, the staff asked who won. They were very disappointed that Ghana lost.

    Many people outside of Africa were supporting the Ghanaian team, as a way to
    show solidarity with Africa.

    It was such an up to find this blog.

    And now, having known little about your books or authors, and seeing the respect and love you have for Africa, I will seek out your books.

  4. Africa wept last night (South African time) when Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty following Luis Suarez's intentional handball that stopped Ghana's winning goal. I hope you come back to our blog! Stan

  5. Yes, Africa wept and so many people wept with the African people after the game was lost.

    People near me in a bank branch were visibly upset.

    Your post about "Ubuntu" was lovely, though, the solidarity with Africa.

    As I said, I will look for your books.

  6. Man, that was a killer for Ghana. My place is near a pub where they were showing the game. When Gyan missed - how will the poor guy sleep? - I could hear the groan. It seemed every neutral wanted Ghana to win. But that's sport. The good guys rarely finish first...