How Can We Have the African Philosophy of Ubuntu in Our Lives

By  //  November 14, 2021

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In South Africa and Zimbabwe, Hunhu / Ubuntu has generated a great deal of debate, especially in terms of whether they can compete with other philosophical worldviews, and also whether they can solve the nation’s socio-political challenges.

Hunhu/Ubuntu is also an important theme in African philosophy, since it emphasizes the importance of group or communal existence in contrast to the Western emphasis on individualism and rights.

An aspect of African traditional philosophy, Hunhu/Ubuntu believes that the burdens and benefits of the community should be shared in a way that prevents prejudice. Every effort is made to put the interests of the community ahead of individual interests. The traditional philosophical meaning of Hunhu/Ubuntu/Botho is sought and its importance in the academy is discussed and explained.

This vantage point examines how the concept is applied in the public sphere as well. In addition, it elaborates on the qualities/features of Hunhu/Ubuntu expressed in Pobee’s Cognatus ergo sum that I am related by blood therefore I exist (Pobee, 1979: 49).

The African Ethic of Ubuntu

The word “ubuntu” is derived from some languages of southern Africa, and it literally means “humanness.” To possess ubuntu means to live a truly human life, while to lack it means to lack human excellence.

According to Black people indigenous to Africa, one’s ultimate aim in life should be to demonstrate ubuntu, which is done by valuing communal relationships with other people.

The purpose of this essay is to examine how this idea informs both the good life and how to live a moral life.

Ubuntu Philosophy: “I Am Because We Are”

Descartes is often called the father of modern philosophy, and his famous saying “I think, therefore I am” laid the foundation for how we conceptualize our sense of self. What if there were another way to think about identity – a non-Western philosophy that rejected this emphasis on individuality?

Consider the African philosophy of “ubuntu” – a concept in which self-perception is shaped by relationships with others. According to the Kenyan literary scholar James Ogude, ubuntu might serve as a counterweight to the rampant individualism so prevalent in contemporary society.

“Ubuntu is a relational form of personhood,” said Ogude, speaking to Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchamps in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “In other words, as a human, your humanity, your personhood, is fostered through relationships with others.”

Ubuntu means believing that the common bonds within a group are more important than individual arguments and divisions. There will be debates and disagreements; it is not like there are no tensions,” said Ogude. “It is about coming together and building consensus around what affects the community. Once you have debated, you understand what is best for the community, and then it is time to buy into that.”

During his tenure as chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu invoked the concept of ubuntu to confront the nation’s history of apartheid. Ubuntu promotes restorative justice and community involvement. In order to heal and bridge the gulf, we must dig into our human values, to go for the best of them,” Ogude said. Rivers, plants, and animals are also included in this idea.

Steve and Anne Ogude spoke with Ogude at the first African Humanities Workshop at the University of Addis Ababa. The Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) sponsored the workshop. 

Ubuntu as Cultivating One’s Humanity

“When we promise high praise to someone, we say Yu u nobuntu; He has Ubuntu.” For many black African cultures, the more one displays ubuntu, or human excellence, the better life will be.

In this conception of the good life, animals and humans are distinguished from each other, and it is claimed that a human should live a genuinely human life and avoid living in a subhuman or animal way.

According to Mogobe Ramose, who has developed a philosophy of ubuntu, “One is enjoined, yes, commanded as it were, to actually become a human being.”

Failure to do so would lead many Africans to claim, “He is not a person” or even “He is an animal.” By this they mean that, although we are biologically human, someone who does not live well has failed to develop the valuable aspects of human nature.

A self-realization ethic of this kind differs from other conceptions of the good life, particularly those popular among contemporary Western philosophers and psychologists. It is striking that this ethic ignores hedonic considerations, such as an individual’s pleasure or satisfaction, which are features that humans share with animals.

Ubuntu and Communal Relationship

A common maxim in many black African societies is “A person becomes a real person by relating to other people.” These maxims have prescriptive or normative meanings, instructing people on how to evolve or to become real people by relating to other people.

Sub-Saharan conceptions of the good life tend to comprehend self-realization in terms of community or harmony. One of the first moral philosophers to engage seriously with Ubuntu is Augustine Shutte:

Our deepest moral obligation is to become more fully human. And this means entering more and more deeply into community with others. So although the goal is personal fulfilment, selfishness is excluded.

The Ubuntu ethic focuses on self-realization, while also being communitarian. Community (or harmony) is a form of interaction between people that people should strive to create and maintain.

The concept of community can be described as a combination of two interrelationships: identifying with others and demonstrating solidarity with them.

Identification with others is about treating oneself as part of the same group: conceiving of oneself as a ‘we’, taking pride in or feeling shame at the work of others, and working together on joint projects to achieve common goals.

Part of solidarity is demonstrating helpful behavior, acting in a way that benefits others. In order to be true to solidarity, attitudes, emotions, and motives must be positive and geared toward the good of others, for example, by sympathizing and helping others.

As an example of why grounding self-realization on such a communal conception of interaction with others might be appealing, consider that the bonding of identifying with others and expressing solidarity with them is basically what English speakers mean by “friendship” (or even “love”). From an African perspective, Tutu remarks, “Harmony, friendliness, and community are great virtues.”

A conception of the good life based on ubuntu ideals and Western notions of eudaimonia and virtue have a lot in common. Self-realization for Aristotle includes a self-regarding aspect such as theoretical contemplation or self-control, that does not essentially involve other persons (even if it does in practice).

Sub-Saharan worldviews, on the other hand, emphasize realizing oneself through others only. Realizing oneself is exhausted by exhibiting other-regard, an approach that is at least attractive if we are considering moral virtues.

Ubuntu and Action

What does it mean to realize oneself through harmonious relationships with others?

Sub-Saharan cultures typically answer this question by appealing to a variety of virtues. A person demonstrates excellence when they display characteristics such as politeness, kindness, sympathy (find more on empathy versus sympathy), compassion, benevolence, altruism, sacrifice, forgiveness, mercy, and tolerance.

It might seem that valuing friendliness in these ways requires pacifism, but that is not the case. The act of acting in unfriendly or conflicting ways when necessary (and likely) to prevent crimes of disrespect and harm is arguably a function of valuing friendliness and community.

The good life is meant to guide individuals in their choices, but it has also influenced societal decision-making in African societies. African intellectuals and policy makers often refer to ubuntu when contemplating how to organize large-scale institutions. The purpose of these organizations is to improve people’s lives, so their structures should encourage Ubuntu, a plausible philosophy of life.

The Spirit of Ubuntu: How Can We Have It in Our Lives?

“There is a word in South Africa that accurately describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all connected in ways that are invisible to the eye; that humanity is one; and that we benefit from sharing ourselves with others, and caring for others,” Obama said.

“Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” or “I am, because you are” is how we describe what Ubuntu means. This refers to the fact that we are all connected, and that one can only advance and grow by advancing and growing along with others.

As a result, Ubuntu has become a reminder for society about how we should treat each other.

Nelson Mandela once said that a traveler passing through a country would stop at a village and didn’t have to ask for food and water. They would offer him food and entertainment. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but there are many more.”

Ubuntu illustrates exactly what Obama referred to as “oneness” in his speech. Humanity is successful when we look after one another.

Mahatma Mandela was the true definition of Ubuntu, as he used this concept to lead South Africa to a peaceful post-apartheid transition. Mandela never intended to teach our oppressors a lesson. He operated with compassion and integrity, showing us that for us to be a better South Africa, we cannot act out of vengeance or revenge, but out of peace.

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu also discussed the concept of Ubuntu and how it defines us as a society. 

“We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world,” he said. “When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” 

Ubuntu reminds us that no one is an island – no matter what we do, good or bad, it has an effect on our family, friends, and society. It also reminds us to think twice about the choices we make and the impact they will have on others.

What are we doing to live Ubuntu and make it a part of our daily lives? 

There is gender inequality, poverty, and violence on a global scale, and these atrocities are what tell us that we need to do more as a society to actively live and breathe Ubuntu and put it into action on a daily basis. 

No matter how small one’s role may seem, everyone in society has a role to play. Our actions have a vital role to play in inspiring others to want to be a part of a better and brighter future. 

Ubuntu is also about justice, and in particular, justice for everyone. In addition to looking after each other, it is equally important to ensure that all people enjoy fairness and equality, regardless of their race, gender, or social status. 

Ubuntu is basically about togetherness and fighting for the greater good. That’s what Mandela sacrificed his life for.

Ubuntu is the common thread and DNA of the UN’s Global Goals, because without Ubuntu within us, we cannot achieve great change for our society. For the sake of our future, it’s crucial that we assist everyone, young and old, to achieve their full potential.


While written scholarship on the topic is new, Ubuntu as an ethical perspective and way of life has existed among sub-Saharan peoples for several hundred years. The Ubuntu principles are one such source of inspiration, not simply for those living below the Sahara desert, since its values should be of interest to readers around the world.

Rather than simply focusing on people feeling good, which is characteristic of a typical contemporary Western approach, it would be better to promote the quality of human life by targeting virtues that are specific characteristics of being friendly, humane, communal in other words, living the life with the spirit of ubuntu.