Ubuntu is an African name for a universal concept. The term contains a timeless wisdom. The Zulu description is - "umuntu ngamuntu ngabantu" which translates variously as:

It expresses the view that “No man is an island.” It is our inter-relationships and inter-dependence that make us who we are. It is not a theory, but an attitude to life. Ubuntu is lived experience.

Edward Blyden said, "We and not I, is the law of African life.”[1] This respect for personhood through persons makes community, not individuality, the natural organising principle of Ubuntu.

The South African ethicist, Augustine Schutte uses the example of parent/child relationship as epitomising the spirit of Ubuntu. He also describes the teacher/student, guru/disciple relationship in the same terms. Each needs the other: the teacher cannot teach without the willingness to learn; the student cannot learn without the experience of the teacher. A third example given by Schutte is that of the relationship of friendship, “Genuine self-love turns out to be love of precisely that in myself that I most deeply share with others, our humanity. This is the attitude of Ubuntu”. [2]

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes about Ubuntu as the essence of being human: “We don’t come fully formed into the world. We learn how to think, how to walk, how to speak, how to behave, indeed how to be human, from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. We are made for togetherness; we are made for family, for fellowship, to exist in a tender network of interdependence”. [3]

“Ubuntu is a concept that in my community is one of the most fundamental aspects of living lives of courage, compassion and connection. It is one that I cannot remember not knowing about. I understood from an early age on in my life that being known as a person with Ubuntu was one of the highest accolades one could ever receive. Almost daily we are encouraged to show it in our relations with family, friends and strangers alike. I have often said that the idea and practice of Ubuntu is one of Africa’s greatest gift to the world. A gift which not many in the world are familiar with. The lesson of Ubuntu is best described in a proverb that is found in almost every African language, whose translation is, ‘A person is a person through other persons’. The fundamental meaning of the proverb is that everything we learn and experience in the world is through our relationship with other people. We are, therefore, called to examine our actions and thoughts, not just for what they will achieve for us, but how they impact on others with whom we are in contact. At the most simple, the teaching of the proverb and of Ubuntu is similar to the Golden Rule found in most faith teachings. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. But one who has Ubuntu goes a step beyond that; it is not only our actions we are called to keep track of, but our very being in the world. How we live, talk and walk in the world is as much a statement of our character as our actions. One with Ubuntu is careful to walk in the world as one who recognises the infinite worth of everyone with whom he or she comes into contact. So it is not simply a way of behaving, it is indeed a way of being!” (Extract from a forward to his granddaughter Mungi Ngomane’s book- Everyday Ubuntu) [4]

In his book, No Future without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers the following description of Ubuntu: “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.”[5]

In an interview Nelson Mandela gave the following answer to a question of his understanding of Ubuntu, “In the old days when we were young, a traveller through our 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 address themselves. The question, therefore, is, are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you and to enable it to improve. These are important things in life, and if one can do that, you have done something very important which will be appreciated.”[6]

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, United States President Barack Obama spoke about Ubuntu, saying, “There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela's greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailers as honoured guests at his inauguration; taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS – that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.” [7]

André François is a renowned Brazilian photographer. He produced a photo documentary entitled Ubuntu to emphasise the interconnected relationships between people around the world. In an interview, he said, “When one cultivates empathy and compassion it is not only good for the person one helps, it is good for oneself. In a moment of compassion, I feel part of something much bigger than myself. I feel I am part of the whole, within this great community that is the planet … and I no longer feel alone.” [8]

A story!

Taken from Extracts from An African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration Ubuntu by Stephen Lundin and Bob Nelson.
An Anthropologist proposed a game to some African tribal children. He placed a basket of sweets near a tree and made the children stand one hundred metres away. Then announced that whoever reaches the sweets first would get all the sweets in the basket. When he said, ‘ready, steady, go!’ …Do you know what these children did?

They all held each other’s hands, ran together towards the tree, divided the sweets equally among themselves, ate the sweets and enjoyed it.
When the Anthropologist asked them why they did so, they answered,
“UBUNTU” [9]

  • Ubuntu means we’re all in this together.
  • Being busy is no excuse for avoiding the things that matter most.
  • To engage another person in an authentic way releases the most powerful energy on the planet.
  • Ubuntu is a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual.
  • The first step in bringing Ubuntu to life is discovering it in your own heart. Ubuntu comes from our natural energy within.
  • With trust and respect, others will give you the benefit of the doubt. Without trust and respect, motivational techniques come across as manipulation.
  • Ubuntu starts with recognizing and embracing the humanity, the equality, and the value of each person.
  • You can’t just do Ubuntu. You have to be Ubuntu.
  • Ubuntu does not mean respecting bad work; it does mean respecting the person who does the work.
  • Ubuntu is a compassionate philosophy, but it is not soft. When the group is threatened by an individual’s behaviour, that person must be challenged.
  • If you allow differences to define a relationship, you will always be at odds with others. Ubuntu asks: “What do we have in common?” “How can we best work together?”
  • Two Levels of Recognition: The first level is to value others simply for who they are. This is the heart of Ubuntu, and it must always come first. The second level of recognition is to value others for what they achieve. This kind of recognition is what drives most performance.
  • When you leave what is comfortable and familiar in order to take on something new and exciting, it is natural to feel unsettled and even afraid. This is where the support and collaboration of colleagues is most important.
  • As long as there are employees who think of themselves as “little people,” the work of Ubuntu is not finished.
  • The door to Ubuntu is called gratitude, and it is always open.
  • The path to Ubuntu is marked by our humanity; we follow the path from person to person.
  • The spirit of Ubuntu is found through community. Community is created when you find unity of purpose with others.

[1] E. Blyden, (p.30 re-published by Black Classic Press 1994), African Life and Customs
[2] Augustine Schutte, 2001
[3] Michael Battle (2009), Ubuntu I in You and You in Me
[4] Mungi Ngomane’s (2019), Everyday Ubuntu
[5] Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999), No Future without Forgiveness
[6] Nelson Mandela, (2012)https://youtu.be/HED4h00xPPA
[7] Barrack Obama, (2013), https://youtu.be/BXYZvz3hapE
[8] Alasdair Foster (May 2022), https://talking-pictures.net.au/2022/05/21/andre-francois-cultivating-compassion/
[9] Stephen Lundin, Bob Nelson (2010), An African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration Ubuntu