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.