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Ubuntu

Concepts and Repertoires of Living Together (RePLITO)

Published onAug 26, 2021
Ubuntu

Ubuntu is a concept born from anti-racist struggles of African communities, in what became known as South Africa (Gordon 2014, 17). As a living philosophy, Ubuntu proposes a relational and interconnected approach to the experience of living together, that directly confronts the colonial and neoliberal domains of humanism, (necro)politics and ‘social cohesion’.

Etymologically, the term Ubuntu derives from the Zulu language, that presents variations within Bantu languages, but also finds expression throughout Africa in the multitude of languages and cultures (Ogude/Dyer 2019; Tamale 2020). It is the combination of the prefix “Ubu” and the radical “Ntu”. “Ubu” denotes movement, vital force, living energy, the flux that embodies the ancestral relationships between everyone and everything. The radical “Ntu” invokes distinctive and particular modes of being and of existing (Chagas 2018, 696-697; Malomalo 2018, 562). In other words, it refers to the interrelationship between the self and the Other in the sense that a person is only a person through other people (Eze 2017, 99). Therefore, the combination of “Ubu” + “Ntu” contributes to the unfolding and dismantling the fragmented and hyper-individualistic comprehension of the self.

Ubuntu praxis invokes a genealogy of struggles against white supremacy, racial dispossession and antiblackness genocide (Cornell/Marle 2015, 3; Malomalo 2018, 526). It refers to:

a realisation that while the illegalisation of apartheid was a form of justice, the cultivation of a post-apartheid society is an ongoing project, through which the responsibility for justice means appealing to a higher standard than those posed by a world in which epistemic and normative practices have been, in a word, colonised (Gordon 2014, 21).

Contrasting with the Western conceptual canon of community, either rooted in fear, violence or utility (as in the Hobbesian and Kantian theories), the Ubuntu embraces a relational view of coexistence based on notion of movement and the politics of life. Instead of a social contract or a monopoly of violence, the praxis of Ubuntu questions the individualistic grounds of Western ontology, in which the individual would exist separated, independently and in opposition to the nature (Ramose 2002; Cornell/Marle 2015).1

In this way, instead of the colonial mechanism of Otherness embedded in the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am”, the Ubuntu maxim is expressed as “I am because we are” (Ramose 2002; Malomalo 2018). In this way, the praxis of Ubuntu conceives that “the flourishing of one human being is not separate from the flourishing of all other” (Cornell/Marle 2015, 5). In other words, the flux that embodies the ancestral relationships between everyone and everything, humans and nonhumans, in which when one part is affected, the entire collectivity is necessarily affected (Malomalo 2018). Hence, the concept poses a critique to the Eurocentric domains of universal ethics, as it “taps into difference as a source of our shared humanity while at the same time placing the individual as a mobile subject embedded between his sociocultural world and the global community” (Eze 2017, 86).

Last but not least, Ubuntu praxis is understood beyond the geopolitical borders of the South African nation state, but rather perceived as a living and travelling philosophy also revisited in the Afro-diasporic contexts, such as Brazil and the Caribbean (Nascimento 1989; Martins 2003; Mosquera et al. 2018, 12, 26; Moraes 2019). Therefore, the notion of Ubuntu is not limited to the so-called ‘traditional African wisdom’ (Gordon 2014, 10; Cornell 2014, 169; Tamale 2020, 36),2 but is conceived as a modern, critical, and living political philosophy born from activist practices.

 

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