Panashe Chigumadzi

Can white South Africa live up to Ubuntu, the African philosophy Tutu globalised?

Just as Black people have been dispossessed of their land, Ubuntu has been dispossessed of its deeply radical demands for ethical historical and social relations among people, Panashe Chigumadzi argues.

Under a 1986 newsletter headline, ‘Ubuntu, Abantu, Abelungu’, Black Sash, the anti-apartheid organisation founded as the vanguard of white liberal women’s opposition in South Africa, reported surprising findings from a white fieldworker in their programme against forced land removals – Black people of the land do not consider white people to be people. That is, we do not consider them to be Abantu. Instead, they are abelungu.

“Ubuntu, Abantu, Abelungu” appeared a few years before the late archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu thrust Ubuntu – the African philosophy best understood through the proverb found in Bantu languages across the continent, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye bantu” (a person is a person through other people) – into the global imagination as he presided over post-apartheid South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission (TRC).

“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a western language,” Tutu acknowledged in his book No Future Without Forgiveness. In his earlier classic African Religions and Philosophy the Kenyan theologian John Mbiti famously rendered Ubuntu’s philosophy of mutual personhood as an African humanist analogue to Enlightenment humanism’s “I think, therefore I am” by translating “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” as “I am because we are”.

Mbiti’s classic humanist translation of Ubuntu obscures the fact that, in contrast to the western conception of the human, the African conception of the person is a social being who is always becoming. Ubuntu holds that to be a person, umuntu, among people Abantu, one must continually uphold the personhood of others. It is for this reason that when I misbehaved, especially to the injury of others, my mother, like many other elders, reprimanded me in our mother tongue, Shona: “Ita munhu!” “Be a person!”

“[The] white man has become umlungu because of us,” dispossessed farmworker Aron Mlangeni stated in “Ubuntu, Abantu, Abelungu”. Mlangeni articulated what philosopher Ndumiso Dladla describes as ‘Ubuntu as an African critical philosophy of race’ rooted not in biology, but in ethical historical and social relations. After centuries of conquest, the settler state formalised land dispossession through the devastating 1913 Native Land Act, which seized 87% of land for the white settler minority, leaving 13% to the Black majority, who were press-ganged into cheap mining and farming labour. Given white South Africa’s unjust historic land conquest and continuing relations of dispossession, it is unsurprising that Black people of the land, that is, we, do not consider white people to be Abantu. Instead, they are abelungu.

On the eve of Black majority rule, global whiteness held its breath in anticipation of a “night of long knives” for white South Africa. Instead, South Africa gave a world at the end of history a “miracle” – the teleological release, a moral arc bending towards justice, a rainbow.

After the negotiated settlement secured Black political rights with the protection of white property rights, the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act mandated the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Dutch conquest of the Cape in 1652 is the genesis of genocide, slavery, indenture and land dispossession, yet the TRC had the limited mandate to hear allegations of human rights abuses between 1 March 1960, the month of the Sharpeville massacre, to 10 May 1994, the date of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.

Without the mandate to right the historic conquest of land and people, Tutu’s impossible task was to wield Ubuntu to reconcile the conflicting worlds of Abantu and abelungu into a nation of what he called the ‘Rainbow People of God’. As Allan Boesak, the anti-apartheid leader and Black Dutch Reformed Church minister who, alongside Tutu, helped cement Black liberation theology’s centrality to the Black Consciousness Movement, has shown, Tutu’s theology of grace and forgiveness was grounded in a Christianised Ubuntu. “African jurisprudence is restorative rather than retributive,” Tutu said, describing the rationale for amnesty at the TRC.

If white South Africa did not repent (the apartheid-era president PW Botha declared “I only apologise for my sins before God’) or make itself humble (white radio listeners’ objection to TRC stories caused a rescheduling to hours “when most of the farmers are no longer listening”), it was surprised by and grateful for Black South Africa’s lack of “bitterness” and “vengeance”.

“In some incredible way God has sown the seeds of a gracious attitude, of the spirit of Ubuntu, in the hearts and minds of the whole African community,” proclaimed Beyers Naudé, the Dutch Reformed Church minister who was one of the few Afrikaner leaders to publicly oppose apartheid. Naudé’s awe at the seeming miraculousness of the transition revealed some of the ways in which even the more sincere, committed part of white South Africa had failed to truly reckon with what the ethical demands of Ubuntu requires of them to have meaningful reconciliation with Black people and become Abantu.

You cannot demand Ubuntu without giving something up

As Black people we as ‘Uxolisa ngani?’ (‘What are you atoning with?’), because it’s understood that ukuhlawula, paying reparations for injuries caused to others, is indivisible from ukubuyisa, the restoration of injured relations. Ubuntu demands costly forgiveness – you cannot receive forgiveness without giving something up as an act of your contrition. The TRC recommended reparations to victims and families who testified. Later, Tutu called for a wealth tax on all white South Africans. The government ignored both recommendations. Too often, calls for national reparation and restoration are conflated with retribution, but Ubuntu among Abantu requires the righting of relations through inhlawulo yokubuyisa, reparations for restoration.

Today, we Black people, 79% of South Africa’s population, own 4% of agricultural land, while white South Africans, 9% of the population, own 72% of agricultural land. In 2014 Oxfam reported, two white men – Johann Rupert and Nicky Oppenheimer – owned as much wealth as the bottom half of the population. The 74% youth unemployment rate – concentrated among Black ‘born frees’ – is the world’s highest. It is unsurprising then, that in their statement to the South African Human Rights Commission’s 2015 hearings, Abahlali baseMjondolo, a Durban shack dwellers’ movement whose members have faced arrest, assault and assassination in their struggle for post-apartheid liberation, cried out that poor Black people “are not counted as human beings”.

In other words, despite the flourishing of Ubuntu in post-apartheid discourse, lending its name to software, businesses, books and philanthropic organisations, South Africa is a country in which we have,as Dladla argues, Ubuntu without Abantu. Just as Black people have been dispossessed of their land, Ubuntu has been dispossessed of its deeply radical demands for ethical historical and social relations among people.

In a land left bereft by the loss of Tutu, it’s still common to hear Black people answer the question ‘Ngumuntu na?” (Are they a person?), ‘Cha, ngumlungu.” (No, they are white.) For white South Africans to no longer be abelungu, settlers in Africa, and to become Abantu, people of Africa, they would have to restore that which made them settlers in the first place – the land. Restoration of the land would begin the national process of ukubuyisa ngokuhlawula, restoring relations through reparations, among Abantu and abelungu into a common world of people bound by Ubuntu.

Until there is a true reckoning with the reparations Ubuntu demands, Black and white South Africa will continue to live worlds apart as Abantu and abelungu. White South Africa, nixolisa ngani? What are you atoning with?


Panashe Chigumadzi is the author of These Bones Will Rise Again and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.


This article was first published in The Guardian.

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