Why Ubuntu is a Liberal Value

Why Ubuntu is a Liberal Value

A philosophical debate has been raging within the ranks of the Democratic Alliance (DA) for the past two weeks.

It concerns Ubuntu, a way of living said to be uniquely African.

Started by Gareth van Onselen, the former head of the DA’s Communications Department, the debate has sparked a very important and necessary discussion within the DA’s ranks about the party’s value proposition.

It must be said. Open, positive debate is how the DA differs from other political parties in South Africa. Debate is open. Debate is about ideas. Where debate takes place in the context of the contestation for positions, it is in the form of positive campaigning where candidates emphasize their own positive attributes rather than attempting to win advantage by highlighting negative aspects of their opponent.

That being said, there are instances where in the battle for positions, negative campaigning takes places. This is so rare that when it does occur, there is outrage from party members. I stand corrected, in my experience, in the four years in the DA I do not recall a candidate winning an election on a negative campaign.

Back to the issue at hand, in a controversial blogpost van Onselen declared that as far as Liberalism in concerned, there is no such thing as Ubuntu. In fact, Ubuntu as an ideal, does not exist, van Onselen suggested.

I digress.

Ubuntu not only exists, but is also a very Liberal value.

In a paper delivered at the first Colloqium Constitution and Law in 1997, former Justice Yvonne Mokgoro suggested that:

“The concept ubuntu, like many African concepts, is not easily definable. To define an African notion in a foreign language and from an abstract as opposed to a concrete approach to defy the very essence of the African world-view and can also be particularly elusive. I will therefore not in the least attempt to define the concept with precision. That would in any case be unattainable.”

While I do not agree that Ubuntu cannot be explained because it is difficult to translate into a ‘foreign’ language, it is certainly not something that is easy to define.

In my attempt to find a definition of Ubuntu I read explanations offered by various commentators such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki and others.

What appears from my reading is that a standard explanation of what Ubuntu is, does not exist.

The understanding of Ubuntu seems to be influenced by context.

Mbeki for example, explained Ubuntu in the context of the ANC as a Liberation movement and its belief that the needs of the community trump the needs of the individual (The irony!). Tutu on the other hand, suggested that Ubuntu relates to being open and available to others.

I did however find a somewhat neutral explanation in the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary:

Ubuntu (n): the idea that people are not only individuals but live in a community and must share things and care for each other

I would go further and simplify that explanation of Ubuntu into two words: Human Solidarity.

Ideas, philosophies and concepts, like most things in life are not static and influenced by context.

What then, in the context of Liberalism is the understanding of Ubuntu?

Liberalism is founded in the concept of individualism – the right of the individual to freedom and self-realization.

Ancilliary to that is the acknowledgment of human solidarity. The DA’s former Strategist Ryan Coetzee explains:

What makes solidarity possible for liberals is not the idea that other members of my group are facsimiles of me. In this conception of things, no solidarity (identification, care or compassion) is possible anyway, because there is no other with which to identify or empathise. In this (collectivist) conception of things, solidarity is really just self-interest masquerading as compassion for others who aren’t really other at all.

Thus, it is possible for a Liberal to consider themselves as an individual, but also have solidarity with the rest of humanity – a Liberal Ubuntu-its, if you will. I consider myself a Liberal Ubuntu-ist.

I am aware of that I live in a community/society with other people. I do not believe that the needs of the community are above my own but I care about the lot of the community. I feel it my duty to ensure that not only are my individual liberties protected, but also those of others.

Liberals should believe in Human Solidary, in Ubuntu. Most of them do.


11 thoughts on “Why Ubuntu is a Liberal Value

  1. There are so many examples of Ubuntu in our everyday lives. People put their families, children and yes, their communities before that of their own. Some of them are visible community projects; others are small things people do to make the lives of their fellow South Africans more bearable. At a micro level, Ubuntu exists.

    But, I have yet to see it at a macro level, yet to see how anyone lives the Ubuntu ideal for the whole of South Africa, since 1994. There are people that have given everything for this country. Who is doing that now? Perhaps, we will only know those names once the sacrifices made has reaped rewards, has saved us from this downward spiral. I know the DA and other parties (and individuals within those organisations) are fighting hard every day. Perhaps once corruption is eradicated, unemployment a distant memory and the violence only visible as scars healing, may be then we will be able to identify the sacrifices, be able to say THAT was Ubuntu. What that person did there, was selfless for the greater good of our nation.

    To touch on the idea of Ubuntu as liberal value, I agree with you, but I want to add that even though liberalism is founded on the right of the individual, it should not be at the cost of that right for another individual. And if we were fighting for the rights of the individual as a whole, and not as the individual as in me, myself and I, Ubuntu is a very natural outflow or consequence of liberalism.

    In my huble opinion.

  2. Is Ubuntu a liberal value? Well I would say no; not because these two concepts are mutually exclusive but because Liberalism as an ideology is not adequately sensitive to cultural and societal concerns to address them.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a liberal. Every government should be a liberal democracy because liberal democracies are the best in offering universality of rights and freedoms. I’m also an African, but being born in Great Briton and brought up in Canada I consider myself an African by choice – how very liberal!
    Above all these handles that I have decided upon one thing is certain: I am a human. And in my opinion Ubuntu just explains humanity and how we interact in society. I have seen examples of Ubuntu around the world and to say it is an African idiosyncrasy is a lie – this however is beside the point I wish to make.
    Liberalism is a great way to ensure fairness in government, great for promoting personal liberty but it fails in addressing what makes up society. Our anthropological origins, biology, mating habits, religion, communication and all their evolutionary history have a distinct effect on who we are and how we behave.
    Liberalism doesn’t fully address these attributes and nor should it for as Gareth accurately described once we start to classify attributes to people or groups we start to separate them from each other. This then removes the universality that Liberalism affords.
    Can Ubuntu exist within Liberalism? Yes of course, but so can Satanism. Is Ubuntu a facet of Liberalism? No, because Liberalism does not prescribe to define societal attributes / restraints and in my view is inadequate to do so.
    But my cynical view is that Ubuntu is just another description of human behaviour. And if you agree with me then Ubuntu is Liberalism because it is enlightened human behaviour that progresses the world to be more liberal.

  3. Hi Angus,

    Thank you for your input.

    I fear you may have misunderstood my point. Perhaps I did not explain it well.

    Firstly, I disputed the fact that Ubuntu is a uniquely African philosophy. I describe Ubuntu as Human Solidarity. Human Solidarity is not something that is unique to African people. I also clearly dispute Judge Mokgoro’s suggestion that Ubuntu cannot be explained in non-African languages as it is an African concept. I should have perhaps expanded on that point a little bit more.

    Secondly, Ubuntu does not merely describes human nature. Describing it as such is a little rudimentary. Ubuntu refers to solidarity, caring about the next person. Caring is not necessarily an attribute that exists in everyone.

    My contention with Gareth’s view was that, as I clearly state, is that he suggests that Ubuntu does not exist . I argued that it does. Or at least it should. I also argued that most Liberals believe in it, and they do.

    Perhaps Gareth and I’s understanding of Ubuntu differs. I suspect his refers to the communitarianism aspect of Ubuntu. Mine refers to the human solidarity of Ubuntu. I do not believe in communitarianism. I did not say that explicitly, but I thought it would be implied in my stating that I do not believe in the supremacy of the community over the individual.

    Perhaps we should chat further about this over a brewskie 😉

    Thank you once again for your contribution. I do love debating shit that matters.


  4. I didn’t really want to get into what Ubuntu is because I wanted more to stress the different spheres of behaviour that Ubuntu and Liberalism address: Liberalism being the macro – government – and Ubuntu the micro –the self.
    I too might be confused on what Ubuntu means but from my understanding concepts like community, solidarity, altruism and loyalty are fairly apt. I contend that these concepts are not quintessentially African and that they are attributes of all human beings. I also contend that these are not programmed by any society but that they are inherent in our genetic makeup.
    Human beings evolved as social animals; even before we started to talk we were cooperating. There was never a single cave man with a stick successfully killing a deer.
    Human social structure had to be very supportive because once we started walking upright we started having premature offspring. This handicap required great support from the band or tribe and tribes that were better at team work wore more inclined to flourish. The predication of altruism, self-sacrifice, loyalty was thus genetically evolved into humans and thinking that it is a cultural construct is a bit arrogant (made by many sects: Christianity the most obvious).
    This dynamic lead to communitarian behaviour and for most of recorded history this behaviour was terribly violent. Liberalism has successfully curtailed most of the violent tendencies that arise from tribalism and nationalism through systems of law and suffrage. Liberalism never needed to address the positive aspects of our evolved nature, Ubuntu, because if it ain’t broke……

  5. Pingback: Ubuntu: A reply to my critics | Matias Vangsnes

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