Embracing Ubuntu and identity during South Africa’s heritage month

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Embracing Ubuntu and identity during South Africa’s heritage month


By Sam Koma, HOD: Reaearch, Milpark Business School

The notion of Ubuntu remains cogent in the heritage and evolving national identity of South Africa.
Thabo Mbeki’s inspiring ‘I am an African’ speech, delivered in 1996 during the adoption of South
Africa’s Constitution, is cardinal in understanding and appreciating the heritage and history of Africa
and its people – and more importantly, what it means to be African in a globalised world. Simply put,
identity is underlined by people’s originality and uniqueness, and answers these three questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?

The question of African identity is succinctly conceptualised by the Kenyan‐born scholar, Ngũgĩ wa
Thiong’o, in his essay, ‘Decolonising the mind’:

…the biggest weapon wielded and unleashed by imperialism against the collective defiance of the
oppressed and exploited is the cultural bomb. The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a
people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle,
in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one
of a wasteland of non‐achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that

Unlike the cultural bomb which decimates, ubuntu is about caring and sharing, and building up. It is
also about generosity, cooperation and humanness. The COVID‐19 pandemic brought to the fore the
humanity, togetherness, communality, generosity and dignity that serve as the hallmarks of ubuntu.

Ubuntu is also closely associated with notions which encourage group solidarity. In fact, ubuntu
requires solidarity, an often necessary precondition for survival in communities like South African
townships and rural areas that are characterised by poverty. Ubuntu is best expressed by the Xhosa
proverb, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which means “I am because we are”.

The outbreak of COVID‐19 in South Africa has renewed the essence of ubuntu, manifesting through
the generous (small and larger) contributions of young and old members of the public to some of the
funding mechanisms established by the government, media houses and philanthropic foundations.
Marked was the contributions made by ordinary citizens from all walks of life to the Solidarity Fund,
which was independently set up to help counter the effects of the virus to public health, small,
medium and micro enterprises, food security and marginalised sectors of the population. In fact, the
very introduction of the Solidarity Fund speaks to what makes us a caring nation. Other social
organisations carried on from there – and went out and started initiatives around behavioral change
as it relates to social distancing, the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline
staff and food relief efforts, among others. These efforts are a clear recognition of the spirit of
solidarity and ubuntu, and one can hope that they will continue to address various areas of societal
need post‐COVID‐19.

No matter how dark the times, the spirit of ubuntu is alive and well. In the past, it has helped bring
communities together, at present it is fostering hope – and in the future it will continue to bring people
of different languages, culture, race, ethnicity, gender and nationalities together. What a legacy to
leave behind! Happy heritage month.


15 Sep 2020