The ubuntu world view: I am because we are

sduncan post on February 5th, 2013
Posted in South Africa Tags: ,

By Stacey Pickering

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of a continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”
​~ Reverend John Donne (in Wanless, 2007)

South Africa is home to nearly 50 million people and is often referred as the “rainbow nation”, because of its rich cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity (Murithi, 2009). Colonization, followed by years of apartheid, has forced South Africans to live with violence, inequality, displacement, and extreme poverty (Muthien, 2008). Nevertheless, South African culture and traditions are rich with practices of giving that are informed by an alternative worldview and challenge western definitions of philanthropy.

Unlike western cultures, which are based primarily on Descartes’ philosophy ‘I think, therefore I am’, the worldview of many Africans, particularly in the sub-Sahara, is focused on the concept of ubuntu, or the mindset that ‘I am because we are’ (Lewis, 2010; Metz & Gaie, 2010; Muthien, 2008; Ramose, 2010; Wanless, 2007). For many South Africans, ubuntu is the essence of being human. It reinforces the importance of a shared way of life within the community and prescribes a moral obligation to help others (Metz & Gaie 2010). According to Desmond Tutu, a person becomes a person when he/she posses ubuntu, which is achieved by being generous, hospitable, friendly, caring, compassionate and sharing what they have with others (in Lewis, 2010 & Murithi, 2009). That is not to say that in order to achieve ubuntu a person must disregard themselves, but rather that enabling and improving the community is an important part of life for which you will be appreciated (Mandela, 2006).

Given that much of South African culture is based the concept of ubuntu, it is not unusual to find neighbours helping each another with food or fuel to make a fire, a practice that is not as common among those raised the ‘I’ orientation of life (Ramose, 2010). This is a prime example of the type of giving and philanthropic practices that are widespread among the majority of South Africa’s citizens. While this type of giving does not necessarily conform to western definitions of philanthropy, it does demonstrate the ubuntu worldview, which advocates relationships in the community, the need to be generous, and the importance of helping others.

The results of a national survey commission by the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) also illustrate the influence of the ubuntu worldview on South African giving practices and the disconnect between western and South African forms of philanthropy. The results of this study revels that, unlike common western assumptions that giving occurs primarily among the rich and is a voluntary act, giving in South Africa is not unilinear from the rich to the poor and is often influenced by patterns of family obligation and reciprocity, that extend eyond the nuclear family (Everett, Habib, Maharaj & Nyar, 2005). In fact, the majority of giving in South Africa occurs in poor communities through informal networks, in the form of money, goods and time. Examples of this include stokvels, which are community based rotating credit circles, and burial societies, that pool resources to transport the dead back to their place of birth for funerals (Everett et. al., 2005). Regardless of what form they take, giving practices in South Africa are heavily influenced by the concept of ubuntu and challenge western definitions of philanthropy.

Works Citied

Everatt, D., Hanbib A., Maharaj B., & Nyar, A. (2005) Patterns of Giving in South Africa.
​International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 16(3), 275-291.

Lewis, B. (2010). Forging an Understanding of Black Humanity through Relationship:
​An Ubuntu Perspective. Black Theology: An International Journal 8(1), 69-85.

Mandela, N. (2006). The Ubuntu Experience, an interview with Tim Modise .
​Retrieved from

Metz, T. & Gaie, J. (2010). The African Ethic of Ubuntu/Botho: Implications for
​Research on Morality. Journal of Moral Education 39(3), 273-290.

Murithi, T. (2009). An African Perspective on Peace Education: Ubuntu Lessons in
​Reconciliation. International Review of Education 55, 221-233.

Muthien, B. (2008). Egalitarianism and Nonviolence: Gifts of the Khoe-San. Off Our
​Backs 38(1), 57-61.

Ramose, M.B. (2010) The Death of Democracy and the Resurrection of Timocracy.
​Journal of Moral Education 39(3), 291-303.

Wanless, D. (2007). Ubuntu – We All Belong to Each Other. International
​Congregational Journal 7(1), 117-119.

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