Ubuntu and the Reconstitution of Community

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James Ogude
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , May
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ubuntu and the Constitution of Community, edited by James Ogude, presents a comprehensive understanding of ubuntu—an African idea or mode of thought that a person is only a person through other persons, that we are all related. This ethical concept was popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation process. The book offers the most updated and comprehensive study of this concept in conversation with some of the most pressing issues in today’s Africa and around the globe on justice, reconciliation, solidarity, and politics, particularly in Africa’s contested romance with Western modernity.

The contributors to this volume historicize the enduring value of this concept as well as the limits of some of the claims of scholars about the meaning and application of this concept. In many instances, ubuntu has been presented as a root metaphor for all things African in an undifferentiated manner.

The book’s ten contributors approach this topic from different angles, which gives the work a wide interdisciplinary range. However, there are some central themes that run through the entire gamut of the work. First, ubuntu is more than a word; second, it is a philosophy of personhood as well as an ethics of community. It is a spirituality of relationship that can be applied as a political praxis as well as an ecological principle for human and cosmic flourishing. Third, ubuntu has a rich and diverse history, and there are some rich interpretations and applications not only in Africa, but also in many other parts of the world.

Readers are led to an understanding of the history of the word ubuntu and its many variances among the Bantu peoples of Africa, from South Africa to Congo and from central Africa to Nigeria. This is particularly developed in chapter 1, where Aloo Osotsi Mojola writes of the diverse meanings of this word as a moral quality in a person as well as an ethic of community and a moral imperative for right conduct in the community. Mojola also presents ubuntu as a tool for developing the concept of imago Dei (the image of God), and thus it is capable of entering into conversation with Judeo-Christian theology. It is also a concept for articulating African notions of human rights and restorative justice.

In chapter 2, D.A. Masolo develops a sophisticated account of how ubuntu can function as a tool for crafting an African theory of justice that can enter into conversation with other theories of justice, particularly John Rawl’s. Masolo’s appeal to the ontological analysis of some important African philosophers is significant. Such philosophers include Alexis Kagame on what it means to be human, as well as what one may call an African humanism and the moral perfection in moral idealism of Shaaban bin Robert,. They serve as good handles for opening the doors to the vast appropriation of ubuntu in dealing with the victims of history in Africa, for example, and in exposing the limitations of the Western social-contract theories.

Niels Weidtmann makes a related argument in chapter 4. He argues that at the heart of ubuntu is the realization of the vital force that can only be actualized through communal practices, particularly through dialogue or the African palaver. Listening to one another’s stories helps communities to come to a consensus on matters that relate to the lives of everyone and address the ruptures in the social ecology. Bhekizizwe Peterson makes the same point in chapter 3, noting that sometimes in order to “assert the rationality and coherence of African thought systems, there is the tendency to establish similarities between African worldviews and European ones” (80). In that light, ubuntu should not be presented in comparative terms as a concept that is like or unlike Western variants, but as an important African gnosis that brings with it a rich treasure of social and spiritual values, ethics, and practices that rectify the imbalance in society and promote the ethics of community without negating individual identity.

In chapter 5 Dirk Louw, harking back to Peterson’s claim, warns against the kind of bipolar thinking of West versus Africa. He notes that it might be better to find ways of rearticulating this ancient African wisdom as a quest for reciprocal interconnection. This will make it possible to harvest deeper the riches of this concept rather than simply present it as a homogenous category in Africa without internal differentiation or even project it as a pristine cultural universal in an uncritical way.

Whereas the first five chapters of the book examine the meaning of ubuntu, its application, and interpretations by appealing to different African philosophical traditions, ethical discourse, and social theory, chapters 6–10 engage ubuntu with other disciplines and other political contexts outside South Africa. Chapter 6, by Oriare Nyarwath, engages ubuntu with the philosophy of punishment of the late Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka. Nyarwath shows that it is possible to move beyond the punitive form of punishment to a more integrative and holistic reconciliation. Anke Graness, in chapter 7, puts ubuntu and the ethics of buen vivir (good living, in broadest terms) in Latin America into conversation, showing how the wisdom from peoples who were once colonized and whose histories have been distorted can resonate within the Global South and the rest of the world as new points of light.

The late Augustine Shutte, whose work is widely cited by many authors in this volume, brings together in chapter 8 some things he has written about the relationship of ubuntu to Christian ethics with an emphasis on building relationships and how these function in the dynamic constitution of a community. Chapters 9 and 10 give two case studies of how ubuntu and its variants functioned after the Rwanda genocide (1994) and in the postelection violence in Kenya (2008). These two examples show how ubuntu can be deployed in understanding the contradictions of history, especially the violence and trauma people suffer in the world and particularly in Africa through racism, apartheid, genocide, xenophobia, and tribalism, among other issues.

Furthermore, through ubuntu, broken communities can seek to go beyond violence and hatred to create a shared history. Through ubuntu, one can discover the power of narratives and how sad narratives can be depicted, archived, and healed when persons see beyond themselves and the past. This is the path to interconnectedness that leads to wholeness.

This is an important book that is well structured, with high-quality essays. It will be an important resource for understanding ubuntu from multiple angles. One minor critique is that explanations of the etymology of the word ubuntu become repetitive, since most of the writers cite the same sources when they write about its meaning. More seriously, the authors fail to address earnestly the patriarchal worldview that has remained in many African societies. The first litmus test, according to Peterson, is the status of women in Africa, particularly the expectations and claims of traditional kinship and conjugal relations. Beyond mentioning this, the authors fail to address this dominance of male voices, and this work could have achieved a balance of perspectives if there was balance between the male contributors and the few (three) women contributors.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stan Chu Ilo is a research scholar at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, USA.

Date of Review: 
April 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Ogude is Senior Research Fellow and Director at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria. He is author of Ngugi’s Novels and African History: Narrating the Nation.


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