Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to “human kindness.” It is an idea from the Southern African region which means literally “human-ness,” and is often translated as “humanity toward others,” but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarized as follows:
“ ‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.
“Ubuntu” as political philosophy has aspects of socialism, propagating the redistribution of wealth. This is similar to redistributive policies in liberalism. This socialisation is a vestige of agrarian peoples as a hedge against the crop failures of individuals. Socialisation presupposes a community population with which individuals empathise and concomitantly, have a vested interest in its collective prosperity. Urbanisation and the aggregation of people into an abstract and bureaucratic state undermines this empathy. African Intellectual historians like Michael Onyebuchi Eze have argued however that this ideal of “collective responsibility” must not be understood as absolute in which the community’s good is prior to the individual’s good. On this view, ubuntu it is argued, is a communitarian philosophy that is widely differentiated from the Western notion of communitarian socialism. In fact, ubuntu induces an ideal of shared human subjectivity that promotes a community’s good through an unconditional recognition and appreciation of individual uniqueness and difference.
“Redemption” relates to how people deal with errant, deviant and dissident members of the community. The belief is that man is born formless like a lump of clay. It is up to the community, as a whole, to use the fire of experience and the wheel of social control to mold him into a pot that may be of general use. Any imperfections should be borne by the community and the community should always seek to redeem man. An example of this is the statement by the African National Congress (in South Africa) that it does not throw out its own but rather redeems.
In the Shona language, the majority spoken language in Zimbabwe after English, ubuntu is unhu. The concept of ubuntu is viewed the same in Zimbabwe as in other African cultures, and the Zulu saying is also common in Shona: munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu.
Stanlake J. W. T. Samkange (1980) highlights the three maxims of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism that shape this philosophy: The first maxim asserts that ‘To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.’ And ‘the second maxim means that if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life’. The third ‘maxim’ as a ‘principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy’ says ‘that the king owed his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him’.
While sharing is incorporated within “unhu”, it is only one of the multiplicity of virtues within “unhu”. In the “unhu” domain, visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions – all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through without payment being expected. In fact, every individual should try his or her best to make visitors comfortable – and this applies to everyone who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality.
Other manifestations of ubuntu are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames. This has the effect of banishing individualism and replacing it with a representative role, in which the individual effectively stands for the people among whom he comes from at all times. The individual identity is replaced with the larger societal identity within the individual. Thus, families are portrayed or reflected in the individual and this phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions being portrayed in the individual. This places high demands on the individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the highest possible virtues that society strives for. “Unhu” embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.
Under “unhu” children are never orphans since the roles of mother and father are by definition not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with “unhu” will never allow any child around them to be an orphan.
The concept of “unhu” also constitutes the kernel of African Traditional Jurisprudence as well as leadership and governance. In the concept of unhu, a crime committed by one individual on another extends far beyond the two individuals and has far-reaching implications to the people from among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes. Unhu jurisprudence tends to support remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. For instance, a crime of murder would lead to the creation of a bond of marriage between the victim’s family and the accused’s family in addition to the perpetrator being punished both inside and outside his social circles. The role of “tertiary perpetrator” to the murder crime is extended to the family and the society where the individual perpetrator hails from. However, the punishment of the tertiary perpetrator is a huge fine and a social stigma, which they must shake off after many years of demonstrating unhu or ubuntu. A leader who has unhu is selfless and consults widely and listens to subjects. Such a person does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from the subjects and lives among them and shares property. A leader who has “unhu” does not lead, but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with “unhu”.