Patrice Motsepe and the southern African tradition of Ubuntu/Botho

sduncan post on January 29th, 2015
Posted in South Africa Tags: ,

By Jonathan Bunce

African philanthropy has been in the news recently, with the January 30th announcement that South African’s richest black citizen, Patrice Motsepe, will be giving away half of his family’s wealth during his and his wife Precious Motsepe’s lifetimes. This announcement was greeted with interest in North America, as Reuters reported that Motsepe is the first African philanthropist to sign up for The Giving Pledge. Founded in 2010 by leading U.S. philanthropists Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, The Giving Pledge is “an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death.”
The Founder and Executive Chairman of African Rainbow Minerals, a mining company with interests in gold, platinum, coal and ferrous metals, the 51-year-old Motsepe, whose personal worth is estimated at R22.99 billion ($2.58 billion CAD), said he was inspired not only by Buffet and Gates’ initiative but also by southern African traditions of generosity. In a press release announcing his pledge, Motsepe stated, “South Africans are caring, compassionate and loving people. It has always been part of our culture and tradition to assist and care for less fortunate and marginalised members of our communities. This culture is also embodied in the spirit and tradition of Ubuntu/Botho.”

Ubuntu is variously defined as a southern African humanism, philosophy, worldview, ethic or personal quality. Danish philosopher Christian B.N. Gade’s investigations showed references to Ubuntu began appearing in written sources in 1846, though until the mid-1900s, it was only used to define a human quality, before being applied more broadly to describe a philosophy or worldview. More recently, ubuntu was discussed considerably during transition from white minority to black majority rule in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the 1990s, and that “it was during the period from 1993 to 1995 that the Nguni proverb ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ (often translated as ‘a person is a person through other persons’) was used for the first time to describe what Ubuntu is.”

At its core, Ubuntu is the recognition that all people are interconnected and that no one exists in isolation. As the Nguni proverb suggests, in Ubuntu we discover our own selfhood through other people – through community, collaboration and co-operation; through openness, kindness and generosity towards others. Prominent South African public figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Nelson Mandela have both expressed admiration for the Ubuntu philosophy. In his 1999 book No Future, No Forgiveness, Tutu said: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
While Ubuntu is a word in the Bantu language, Botho is the Botswanan word for the same concept in the Tswana language.

The generous spirit of Ubuntu can also be seen expressed in the philanthropic work of the Ubuntu Institute, who work towards the eradication of HIV/AIDS and poverty, the empowerment of women and providing access to education in Africa, and the Trust Africa Foundation, concerned with securing the conditions for democracy and cultivating African development, enterprise and properity, “through collaboration and partnerships with like-minded institutions and donors.”

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