Ubuntu, the Emotional South African Word that Reflects on Life

According to African culture, a person with ubuntu is someone available to others, free from selfishness and greed, skilled in tolerance and empathy.
Ubuntu, the Emotional South African Word that Reflects on Life

Last update: 06 July, 2022

Ubuntu is an ethical principle, an existential value that urges us to interconnect, live together, and respect each other. It’s a term of African origin, more specifically, of the Zulu and Xhosa languages. In fact, among the indigenous population of South Africa, there’s a beautiful and popular saying that goes “umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu”. It can be translated as ‘I am because we are” or “humanity toward others”.

It’s always interesting to make contact with the linguistic legacies of other cultures. After all, language is the way in which we understand and represent the world. In the case of the word, ubuntu, it should be noted that it evokes the concept of humanity and that it was a symbol of the revolution that Nelson Mandela started in 1990.

The clergyman and politician, Desmond Tutu also made this word his own. In fact, he integrated it into the moral compass he tried to instill in the people of this country throughout his life. Humility, empathy, respect, cohesion. It’s an idea as evocative as it’s philosophical. Let’s take a closer look.

“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.”

-Desmond Tutu-

hands with doves representing ubuntu

Ubuntu, the common good is one’s own good

When we reach a certain age, we tend to reflect on the meaning of life. However, it’d be more enriching and practical to start doing it from a really young age. For example, we could consider the role of philosophy, of concepts that encompass within them a whole compendium of values, approaches, and noble meanings. In fact, we could make them our own as soon as we’re able.

Ubuntu means ‘I am because we are’ and there are few ideas that sum up what humanity is (or should be) so well. As Desmond Tutu said, this term seeks to remind us that the essence of being human is linked to community and respectful connection with others. We all matter, every life is important, and we deserve dignity, respect, and consideration.

When we respect each other, together, we form a meaningful unit. Therefore, if we harm someone, we also dehumanize ourselves. If we look back to the apartheid era and the system of racial segregation experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa, we can understand the significance of this idea.

Kindness connects us and gives authentic meaning to life

Kindness is the emotional glue that connects us to one another. This is what gives life true meaning. The person with ubuntu not only practices kindness but also feels it and understands that, without it, nothing can be sustained. Indeed, intentional harm harms us all, and the horror of all forms of aggression lives within us for generations.

It’s worth remembering Erich Fromm’s reflection on dehumanized society and his fear that technological progress would bring us a colder, more selfish, and less empathic world. The practice of ubuntu means that this doesn’t happen. It reminds us that it’s only when we look for the common good, that our own also prevails.

Case Western Reserve University (USA) conducted research that claimed altruism reverts to one’s own happiness. As the ubuntu philosophy emphasizes, “I am because we are and since together we are, then I am”.

Ubuntu is a type of philosophy that emphasizes the oneness of humanity. This is a value that’s been present for generations in many African peoples.

People joining their hands symbolizing ubuntu

The ubuntu philosophy to overcome the divide between us

Our society is ruled by technology. Also, by social differences, uncertainty, and a deep feeling of loneliness. As a matter of fact, we’re more connected than ever but, at the same time, we feel empty and even meaningless. Occasionally, we look to the future with hope but almost always with fear.

In this diverse world governed by infinite interests and with great shortcomings, we need this concept, this philosophy, more than ever. Ubuntu is the exercise of tolerance and care for others. We can’t treat others as disposable beings because then we create divisions and build walls that separate us.

The meaning of life is to achieve unity with those around us, respect others, know how to listen, empathize, and create bridges. That’s true happiness, the solution that tempers and dissolves our fears and loneliness. “I am because we are” is a beautiful and hopeful message that’s well worth making our mantra.

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