Ubuntugogy for the 21st century.

Author:van der Walt, Johannes L.
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Essay


The state of community life in general, and of education in particular, in Africa south of the Sahara (henceforth also referred to as the sub-continent) seems to indicate that Africans have failed somewhat in their efforts to provide for themselves lives of good quality. Malala's (1) complaint that the African century has failed to dawn can be ascribed inter alia to the fact that sub-continental Africans seem not to have mastered the art of peaceful coexistence. (2) Life in this part of the world has for decades now been characterized by wars, violence, soaring crime rates and delinquent behavior, also in the more subtle forms of sexism, xenophobia, selfishness, collapse of family life, a growing gap between the rich and the poor, corruption and racism. (3) Such conditions are detrimental to the quality of personal and communal life. (4)

Similar conditions prevail in schools. In many areas, life in schools has been characterized by violence, destruction of property, laziness, a lack of punctuality, weak performance, learner and teacher delinquency and self-centredness--in brief, by a general lack of moral literacy. (5)

This portrayal of life on the sub-continent does not sit well with the precepts of the traditional African philosophy of life known as Ubuntu (in the Nguni languages; Botho in the Sotho languages, Hunhu in Shona, Bisoite in Lingala-Baluba, Ujamaa in Kiswahili, Harambee in Kenya). (6) According to Ubuntu, a person is who s/he is only because of the existence of others and because of his/her coexistence with them. If this is indeed the world-view according to which the people of the sub-continent live, why do we then find the inhabitants of the Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Western Sahara, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Guinea-Bissau (to mention only a few of the hotspots) to seemingly have lost sight of this sentiment? Why has Ubuntu failed to inspire the people of the sub-continent towards peaceful coexistence and democracy?

Failure to live according to the precepts of Ubuntu constitutes a threat to the freedom of the people. (7) Similar perpetrations also occur in other parts of the world. They are a function of how the respective life-views impact on people, their morality and their behavior. Unfortunately, we have to confine our attention to the situation in Africa. It is not the purpose of this article to harp on the negative conditions prevailing on the sub-continent or on the perceived failure of its inhabitants to live according to the tenets of Ubuntu. Neither is its purpose to once again proclaim the already well-known virtues of Ubuntu as a potential contributor to enhanced quality of life. Instead, the purpose of this paper is to consider the possibility of Ubuntugogy being a more suitable approach for sub-Saharan Africa than typical Western-style colonial education.

While having borrowed the term 'Ubuntugogy' from Bangura, (8) I shall follow his lead only partially. I shall argue that two sets of changes have to be made to render Ubuntugogy more amenable to the demands of the modem, globalized, urbanized and industrialized circumstances on the African subcontinent. Firstly, Ubuntu, that is the life-view that forms the sub-stratum of Ubuntugogy, has to be updated, modernized or reconstructed to put it more in line with the demands of 21st century life. Secondly, while the notion of Ubuntugogy in itself remains attractive as a return to the classic past of Africa, it also needs filling with more appropriate content. It needs a global format to be able to address the needs of modern sub-continental Africans. (9) Because of their traditional tribal limitations, a simple return to Ubuntu and Ubuntugogy will not pass muster in modern African societies. Pedagogical input from the northern hemisphere has to be included in the new approach. Ubuntu and Ubuntugogy also need filling with new moral content. (10) The rest of this article contains proposals about this reconstruction process.


Ubuntu as a traditional tribal life-view could be updated or modernized in several ways. This is a prerequisite for it to become a suitable sub-stratum for a similarly updated or modemized version of Ubuntugogy. The horizontal spirituality of Ubuntu could receive attention. Because of the traditional horizontal spirituality of Ubuntu, an individual could see no value in deeds and behavior unrelated to the practices and rituals of the group to which s/he belonged. (11) The expression 'a person is only a person with and through other people' possessed, according to Bangura, (12) unmistakeable spiritual or religious undertones since it referred not only to living persons but also to the ancestors. A person found himself or herself tied to others, including the ancestors, in a total mystic union. (13) A person saw him- or herself as a vital link in the cosmic chain of vital forces; s/he was a link in the chain 'upwards', i.e. with the ancestors, as well as 'downwards', i.e. with the descendants. (14) Each individual was therefore involved in a spiritual transaction with all the ramifications of his or her community. (15) A person's own birth was unimportant in the greater scheme of things; s/he only acquired significance through living and working with other people and through taking responsibility for the self and others. Moral values and traditional codes of behavior were seen as sanctioned by the gods and the ancestors. Human behavior therefore always found itself in the balance between the spiritual world and the human world. (16) As a concession to Western influences, greater recognition could be accorded to the status of the individual while still recognizing the importance of the group to which s/he belongs and its interests. (17) Greater recognition of the status of the individual and his or her group is important for counteracting the modem economic logic of maximizing which tends to force individuals and their interests to the background. (18) Individual interests should not be allowed to disappear into group or communal interests. Each person should be seen as a link in the chain of vital forces, but not as having value only because of being a link. Each individual is important in his or her own right.

Although the vital link between individual and ancestors/descendants may become less significant because of this subtle change in how the individual is viewed, modern sub-continental Africans should never lose sight of his / her duties, privileges and responsibilities towards the self and others. Since it is unrealistic to conceive the fulfilment of duties etc. in a modern society as a response to divine or ancestral injunctions, each member of a community should feel him- or herself morally bound to the precepts of some or other Manifesto of Human Rights (as part of modern constitutions, or as declarations by organizations such as the United Nations). They should furthermore feel bound to such duties etc. because of the moral imperatives flowing from their personal religious affiliations, convictions and life views.

This adaptation to Ubuntu will give new meaning to the idea of human rights. (19) It will help tone down the excessive self- and group-centeredness of Ubuntu and to transform it into moral behavior that could benefit the entire sub-continental (educational) community. This proposal also resonates with the theory of communitarianism: individualism should be toned down in favor of collective values and aims. (20)

In the second place, Ubuntu's traditional dualistic nature should be eradicated but not be replaced with Western-style dualisms. Ubuntu traditionally embraced the notion that the mortality, the limitedness, the contingency and finiteness of the human being could and should be counterbalanced by his or her connections and relatedness with others in the group. (21) This dualism could be eliminated by placing stronger emphasis on the inherent monism, (22) integrity and holism of Ubuntu, (23) not by replacing it with, for instance, the typical Western two-realm dualism of (for instance) the secular (worldly) as opposed to the sacral (holy) realms of life.

In the third place, the vertical spirituality of Ubuntu could be updated. Africans originally believed in the existence of spiritual, even mystical forces and powers, and because of their anxiety about the brevity of their existence on earth, they not only subjected themselves to these forces (which could be gods, the Christian God, spirits or ghosts) but also sought safety in the group. (24) Updating here could include enjoining each individual and his/her group to attach themselves to a religious source (God / god) that makes sense to them in a modern context. (25) Each inhabitant of the sub-continent should not only enjoy the freedom to draw inspiration from this source but also enjoy peaceful coexistence despite religious and life view differences.

Part of this process would involve updating Ubuntu values by 'thickening' them with relevant life view content. Swartz (26) and Zecha (27) pointed out that the names of values as such do not have moral significance because such names are susceptible to relativistic interpretation. The name of a value signifies a 'thin' value, i.e. a minimalist, limited, general and public description that would suit public consensus. 'Thick' values, on the other hand, refer to private, maximalist, religious, life-view, confessional and even prescriptive value formulations that fall outside public consensus. (28) The moral 'thickening' of a value entails more than a broad description of a 'thin' value. For example, to describe the Ubuntu value of 'respect for others' as 'refraining from derogatory language and abusive...

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