One of the most insightful answers I have found to the question, “What is Ubuntu?” is contained in a reflection by a South African, Barbara Nussbaum, after the carnage of September 11. Her poignant literary style enlivens the concept. “Ubuntu”, she says, “is the capacity in African culture to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interests of building and maintaining community with justice and mutual caring.” Ubuntu is not just an African philosophy but a spirituality and an ethic of African traditional life. In his work, No Future Without Forgiveness , Desmond Tutu, describes a person with Ubuntu as one with self-assurance who is open, available to others and affirms them. Even though African society has been largely eroded of this primal value, the kernel of its philosophy remains a veritable motif for the forging of global peace platform. In history, the Ubuntu spirit, whatever name it has been given, is the one that has propelled the world towards oneness in the likes of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Joseph Stiglitz and Nelson Mandela. They all embodied the Ubuntu spirit in the different contexts that they lived. It is however not sufficient that the Ubuntu spirit has punctuated history; it needs to be the default consciousness of humanity if there is to be a global culture peace. Peace is never achieved through peace treaties and agreements because there will always be loopholes to circumvent the treaties, but through a deliberate and consistent commitment to the common good in the spirit of Ubuntu.
To illustrate the philosophy of Ubuntu, I reproduce verbatim one of the many illustrations of Ubuntu by Nussbaum. Joe Mogodi, a successful businessman in Pietersburg, South Africa, showed his Ubuntu by buying up 100 sewing machines at an auction, which he then made available to men and women in the community who were interested in starting tailoring businesses but did not have the necessary capital. He honoured their dignity by making a simple verbal agreement that they would pay him for the machines once there were sufficient profits to begin interest-free payments. This is typical of Ubuntu consciousness and still occurs widely both in rural South Africa and among African communities in the urban areas.
The philosophy of Ubuntu comes from the realization that each and everyone’s life is deeply tied to the other and the CHOICE to use personal POWER to commit to the common good as opposed to creating isolated individual good. The philosophy of Ubuntu is very clear. The creation of the commonwealth enriches everybody and when everybody is enriched, everybody is happy and peace prevails. The contrast is also true: when one uses personal power to impoverish others in order to create personal wealth and power. It must be recognized that the abuse of personal power comes from a diseased, dysfunctional and narcissistic human mind that creates a bloated image of self and seeks to sustain the image. These are expressed through corporate, political, economic and scientific choices as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples, and countries. The greatest ethical failure of all times is to give corporations the status of a moral body. Through them, technology and financial institutions have magnified the destructive impact that the dysfunctional human mind has upon the planet, other life-forms and upon humans themselves. In a recent Oakland report, it is amazing to see how the World Bank economic programs for Africa have become tools for the continuous impoverishment of Africa by the same people who go to “help” Africa under different pretexts.
In truth, neither global economic and social well-being nor peace can come from the promulgation of more international instruments. They are important in as much as they provide the basic international guide for living together on the planet. The desired results of increase and consolidation of actual human and social wellbeing can only come from both a personal and collective commitment to the ethical imperatives of Ubuntu. In other words, the African Ubuntu can bring about a revolution of tenderness if the people of the world allow themselves to drink of its spirit. It is to the substance of Ubuntu that AEFJN invites all as we journey on.