Discover how Ubuntu challenges traditional notions of progress, emphasizing interconnectedness and community well-being over individualism and economic growth.
//

Reimagining progress in Africa: Ubuntu and sustainable development

Discover how Ubuntu challenges traditional notions of progress, emphasizing interconnectedness and community well-being over individualism and economic growth.

In many circles, ‘development’ is considered a universal idea, believed to hold the same meaning across all cultures. However, in Africa, progress takes on a unique interpretation. Here, the significance of human relationships, from ancestors to future generations with ties to the land, supersedes conventional notions of development. Central to African understanding of well-being is the Zulu/Xhosa concept of Ubuntu (or Batho in Sotho), encapsulated by the phrase ‘I am a person through other persons’.

This philosophy is actively integrated into South African governance through initiatives such as truth and reconciliation, Ubuntu diplomacy, jurisprudence, and the People First (Batho Pele) policies. It is generally assumed that ‘development’ is a universal concept, understood the same way in every culture. In Africa, progress is understood differently; human relations – including ancestors and future generations tied to the land – take precedence over development. The African concept of well-being is Ubuntu (I am a person through other persons), implemented in South Africa through truth and reconciliation, Ubuntu diplomacy, jurisprudence, and People First (Batho Pele) policies.

Ubuntu challenges conventional development centred around individual human rights and economic growth and replaces it with community ceIntergenerational justicentred wellbeing including ancestors and future generations and care for the earth

Dorine van Norren

Deciphering Ubuntu: Core principles in African philosophy

Ubuntu in Africa embodies a profound concept – a dynamic revelation of the universe. It hinges on Ubu, representing abstract Being linked to Ntu, the life force that together forms life, perpetually renewing itself.  Closely linked to the proverb ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ – I am because we are -it signifies interconnectedness, collective dignity, compassion, and communal values. This ethos, rooted in traditional beliefs where even inanimate objects hold life force, shapes the human community, ‘bantu’, bonding ancestors, the living, and future generations to the land, fostering an inseparable connection between humanity and nature through the earth-related ‘living dead’ and the ‘yet-to-be-born.’

What is meant by Ubuntu in Africa? Ubuntu, at its core, means the incessantly moving revelation of the universe. Ubu is an “abstract Being” (patterns) connected to Ntu, “life force Being,” which, in a cycle, destroys and renews itself. Ubuntu is popularly used as “I am because we are. This is derived from the proverb ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ (a person is a person through other persons).  It implies interpersonality, (equal) dignity, compassion, community values, sharing together, non-discrimination, and interaction among all living beings. The latter goes back to traditional beliefs in which inanimate objects also possess life force, although this explanation is no longer held by all. In addition, the human community – “bantu” – consists of the ancestors and those yet to be born. The ancestors are connected to the land, creating an inseparable bond between the human community and nature. 

Ubuntu thus has a collective character, where the individual is at the service of the community but at the same time does not lose his autonomy.  It connects human rights with a relational dimension and is also called, in a quote from Constitutional Judge Mokgoro, “the grandmother” of human rights.  It is, in fact, the African concept of well-being, but also its interrelationship with nature and spirituality. Sharing with others is a self-evident social duty. Rights thinking, so prevalent in the West, is complemented by duty thinking and boundedness instead of freedom. All of life is seen as “mutual aid.”  

Debating Ubuntu: Challenges and criticisms, objections against Ubuntu

Critics in academia often raise objections to embracing Ubuntu philosophy in societal development, questioning its relevance and applicability. Despite its deep-rooted significance in African culture, some view Ubuntu as an impractical ideal, suggesting that Africans themselves do not uphold it. Furthermore, scholars may doubt Ubuntu’s status as a genuine African philosophy, dismissing it as mere oral tradition. Such skepticism has been denounced by African thinkers as a form of intellectual racism and Afro-Philo-phobia. Additionally, various critical interpretations of Ubuntu exist, ranging from romanticized notions of the past to concerns about its compatibility with modern ideologies like communism and capitalism or its applicability beyond Africa due to cultural differences.

Although involving one’s own culture in the development of society seems logical, a striking number of objections are raised in academia against thinking from the Ubuntu philosophy. Ubuntu is often belittled as an ideal to which Africans do not adhere.  That the West regularly cares little for its own lofty human rights or Christian ideals is conveniently overlooked. In addition to reservations about implementation, scholars sometimes even question the existence of Ubuntu as an African philosophy as an oral tradition. This argument is dismissed by African philosophers as “intellectual racism” and “Afro-Philo-phobia,” that is, fear of African visions of life. Other characterizations of Ubuntu range from a romantic concept of the past that is irrelevant to modern society, communism that prevents people from climbing the social ladder, anti-communism that does not take into account class struggle, cultural-relativistic undermining of human rights, a concept relevant only to Africa to the lack of a homogeneous African culture.  

Ubuntu: Nature and intergenerational justice

In Ubuntu philosophy, the environment is integral to community existence, with the concept of ‘seriti’ (a Sotho word akin to the life fore Ntu) symbolizing the interconnected life force that binds individuals and nature. This interconnectedness imbues all beings, including nature and inanimate objects, with moral value. Within the framework of Ubuntu, everything derives from the collective essence of Ntu, binding Bantu community, nature, time, and space (all words ending in Ntu), fostering a balance that sustains the ‘u-bu-ntu’ worldview. In Ubuntu, the environment is part of community life. People believe in “the field that connects all living things” and call it seriti.

Seriti is also the life force that connects individuals in the community.   The constant exchange between personality and community makes seriti closely related to Ubuntu, for the unity of the life force is related to the unity between individual and community.  The web of life also means that all things have moral value: nature, animal life, as well as inanimate objects such as stones.  In fact, there are no “inanimate” objects, only “subjects” related to each other. After all, all derive from the same Ubuntu source: the Bantu (people) community, nature, time and space, the qualities of being forms, are all present in abstraction (bu), and are brought to life by the life force (ntu) and keep each other in balance. Together, this forms the u-bu-ntu.

According to the principle of intergenerational justice, violating the environment is also a violation of Ubuntu.  This principle is partly enshrined in the South African Constitution (leaving out the ancestors), Section 24.2: “The right to an environment that is not detrimental to health and well-being, and to have the environment protected for present and future generations.” At the time (1996), this was a very innovative constitutional principle.

Credit. Midjourney

According to a local leader, the responsibility to protect the environment isn’t solely enshrined in laws. Still, it stems from a deep-seated accountability to ancestors connected to the Earth. Traditional communities’ profound connection to the land offers valuable indigenous wisdom, fostering a cosmology that embraces inclusivity and progress. In contrast to prevailing economic-centric approaches, these leaders advocate for prioritizing life over profit, putting the economy at the service of life, and highlighting the importance of preserving our planet for future generations.

As a local leader states: “That mandate does not just come from the Bill of Rights. It is a duty implicit in our understanding of accountability to ancestors identified with the Earth. The strong connection to the land that traditional communities have is a source of indigenous knowledge and, when properly understood, a progressive, inclusive cosmology. As the planet is increasingly compromised by a development logic that puts life at the service of the economy, Traditional Leaders and (African) customary law operate from the opposite premise. The economy must be at the service of Life.”  

People first policy and Ubuntu jurisprudence

Although Ubuntu’s philosophy emphasises communal consciousness of all life, South Africa’s approach remains more anthropocentric than biocentric. Unlike indigenous cultures and policies in (some of) the Americas, the nation’s environmental policy generally lacks a focus on the interconnectedness of humans and nature, often neglecting to respect boundaries with the environment. Only in 2023, Ubuntu was mentioned in biodiversity policies. Instead, governmental priorities revolve around the “Batho Pele” principle, prioritizing people’s interests and government accountability over ecological considerations. The term ‘batho’ signifies a similar concept to Ubuntu, reflecting the nation’s commitment to putting people (batho) first (pele) in governance.

But even though the collective consciousness of Ubuntu goes beyond simply interpersonality and relationality, the emphasis of African Ubuntu, at least in South Africa, is more people-centric than bio-centric, a vision of life as espoused by the Indigenous of North and South America. South Africa’s environmental policy is not based on the seriti concept of the invisible interdependence of humans and nature. This can mean that boundaries with nature are not always observed. Government policy primarily focuses on the “Batho Pele” (People First) principle.  The word batho is the Sotho version of the word Ubuntu in Nguni languages. 

The Batho Pele policy involves the government observing certain standards, such as respect and transparency, in its dealings with citizens. It aims to erase the apartheid past and restore humanity to the relationship between government and citizens.  It also includes means of redress. This relates mainly to government services such as social security, police, and health care or to equal access to nature. Implementation of service delivery by the government has, however, lagged behind due to various causes, such as the lack of education of newly installed professionals after apartheid.

Ubuntu can also be found in numerous court cases relating to restorative justice, for example, family law, criminal law (famously the truth and reconciliation commission), right to housing, and migration issues. It was also invoked to abolish the death penalty in South Africa. Concrete rights have been derived from this concept.

Ubuntu and SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are multilaterally negotiated and claim to be universal but are underpinned by European thinking of modernism (individuality, growth, separation of nature and humans, etc.). To be truly inclusive of Africa, they can do more justice to Ubuntu. However, official African positions on the SDGs emphasized industry and infrastructure and overlooked restorative justice and community values.

Ubuntu offers a unique lens through which to view sustainable development. Some argue it could even be an alternative approach to conventional development strategies. Instead of the hierarchical “leave no one behind” model, Ubuntu promotes a horizontal relationship, emphasizing mutual aid and collective agency. This philosophy prioritizes the interconnectedness of life, replacing individuality with a sense of community. In contrast to relying solely on measurable indicators, Ubuntu emphasizes engagement and shared experiences, a different, additional way of gathering knowledge. It values the present process over abstract future goals, offering a holistic perspective on development.

How does Ubuntu relate to the sustainable development goals? Ubuntu can be seen as the context in which development takes place. For some, Ubuntu is even an alternative to development because Africa is said to be “development tired.” That is, Ubuntu can constitute a new (and old) way to give life direction and meaning. Ubuntu would change the leading SDG theme into: ‘life is mutual aid’ (horizontal Ubuntu relationship) rather than the hierarchical ‘leave no-one behind’ (developed versus developing countries). Ubuntu would replace sustainability with the ‘community of life’ and individuality with ‘collective agency’. It would also complement ‘knowing through measuring’ (indicators) with ‘knowing through feeling engagement with others’. It prioritises process (strategies/now) over goals (an abstract future). 

Ubuntu relates closely to the first five social goals, to goal 10 (equality)  and goal 16 on peaceful, inclusive societies. The concept of Ubuntu also intertwines with goal 17, global partnership: humane living conditions for all can only be achieved by countries if there is global cooperation, not least in transparent economic and financial systems. One could extend this to our dealings with the earth, linking the social cooperation dimension to the sustainability dimension of the goals. All are interdependent.

🔬🧫🧪🔍🤓👩‍🔬🦠🔭📚

Journal reference

van Norren, D. E. (2022). African Ubuntu and Sustainable Development Goals: seeking human mutual relations and service in development. Third World Quarterly43(12), 2791-2810. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2022.2109458

Dorine van Norren is an associate researcher at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance, and Society, as well as an Associate Researcher at the University of Pretoria, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Humanities. She holds a master's in international and Dutch law (1995) and a PhD in law and development studies (2017, Tilburg University and the University of Amsterdam). The title of her dissertation was 'Development as Service: A Happiness, Ubuntu, and Buen Vivir interdisciplinary view of the Sustainable Development Goals'. She studied law in Amsterdam and South Africa (Cape Town) and French for a year in France (Lyon).

She worked as a diplomat in Sri Lanka (Colombo, 1998-2001) and Turkey (Ankara, 2001-2005) and held several positions at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Southern Africa, '96-'98, North America, 2005-2009, European Integration, 2013-2014, desks). She worked for the Advisory Council of International Affairs (AIV, 2009-2013), as an executive secretary for the Commission on Development, and as Coordinator for UNESCO, human rights, and SDGs at the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (2016-2020). Currently, she is a Strategic Advisor for the Western Hemisphere (2020-now). She gives (inter)national lectures on her PhD and has published several articles and blogs.