“What relevance can Ubuntu have as a global value resource?” This was the question posed by Bo Stråth and Tom Bennett in their recent STIAS seminar.
“The ongoing values crisis can be epitomised as an economic crisis that became a political crisis that became a values crisis”, said Stråth. “There is a lack of a global meta-norm and our work is investigating whether the concept of Ubuntu might be able to address that gap.”
“We are looking at whether Ubuntu can contribute to the sense of legitimacy that is failing the Western conception of democracy,” continued Stråth. “Democracy, as we understand it, has only been around for a short time historically – it remains unstable, entangled with other ideas.”
Stråth is Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies, Department of World Cultures, University of Helsinki and current STIAS fellow, while his co-researcher is Prof. Tom Bennett of the Department of Public Law of the University of Cape Town. The study falls under the STIAS theme of the Future of Democracy.
“Ubuntu is an Nguni word that covers a broad semantic field to signify a sharing that connects humans and typifies all right thinking. As such, it functions as a meta-norm, similar to the religious Halacha in Judaism, Dharma in Hinduism and even the Western enlightenment discourse on universal human rights,” said Stråth. “Since the 1990s, Ubuntu has played an important role in South Africa’s transition to democracy. Its ready assimilation into the country’s public discourse − and even into other parts of the African continent − can be attributed to an open-ended field of reference that connotes a universalism and, at the same time, an emancipative Africanisation. Ubuntu carries the mark of a distinctive African cultural heritage.”
“When we started the project we were initially addressing whether Ubuntu could be a resource to stabilise declining democracy,” continued Stråth. “With events of the past few years it has widened to an analysis of whether Ubuntu can address the values crisis which stretches beyond just democracy.”
Stråth and Bennett began their presentation with a view on the current crisis from a detailed historical perspective in particular linking it to its two predecessors, which each ended in world war.
The historical triggers for crisis included tensions between political and economic liberalism; capitalism and democracy, and liberalism and equality.
“In the inter-war period, world leaders like Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini were looking for politics to stabilise economic crisis,” said Stråth. ”They were all interested in each other’s solutions and sent delegations to each other’s countries. They were like distant relatives, as a German historian has phrased it, rather than each other’s opposites. Only when Hitler and Mussolini turned to military aggression in the mid-1930s did Roosevelt’s interest came to an end.”
“Of course, history does not provide a definitive prognosis,” said Stråth. “But it should make us attentive to what is going on.”
“With the collapse of the financial markets in 2008, disillusionment with democracy has set in, and faith in it has not recovered. Instead, it has been overtaken by an aggressive nationalism. Neoliberalism has shifted to a radical economistic hyper-liberalism with ever-fewer connections to earlier models of democracy.”
“The present values crisis does obviously not depart from a global value canon,” continued Stråth. “The question is to what extent the values crisis is global.”
“I believe the crisis reflects a lack of communication capacity,” he added.
The history of Ubuntu
The presentation also outlined the conceptual history of Ubuntu beginning with the missionaries who in the nineteenth century used the term in their Bible translations and gave it written form. Stråth and Bennett pointed out that before the 1950s the term was not frequently used and was not value laden. With the rise of Africanism, decolonisation and African nationalism from the 1960s it became more frequently used. “In the period of decolonisation African leaders wanted to find the roots of African existence while still moving Africa forward into Western progressive modernity,” said Stråth.
“Until the 1990s the concept of Ubuntu had no national currency outside its languages of origin,” added Bennett. “This changed with the collapse of apartheid when it was seen as a unifying concept for a new society. After 1993, Ubuntu shifted from a concept or a word to a mushrooming and mobilising vocabulary in the South African legal system. Especially in this context, the concept took on a generic dimension with strong normative power.”
“In the law Ubuntu has a life of its own,” continued Benett. “It has gained acceptance into law and is deployed in many cases – including the case that finally put the death penalty to rest. It has also had a huge impact on Child Law.”
“One word has equated to a new legal discourse,” he added. “It fell on fertile soil with the need to unify mixed legal systems.”
“Ubuntu is used to express rights or power in a very particular kind of way and is linked with virtues such as grace, compassion, humanity, tolerance, respect and dignity. It emphasises responsibility to others and to society,” said Bennett.
“Many rights essentially seen as Western are being ‘Africanised’ by Ubuntu,” he said. “The concept has also been used in legal cases in other countries.”
In discussion Stråth and Bennett agreed that there has been some negativity around Ubuntu in recent discourse with younger Africans pointing to it being used to foster too much inclusivity and too much social justice. “But mistrust of any ideal is inevitable,” said Stråth.
“There is some negative thinking,” added Bennett, “but in South Africa powerful institutions are picking up on Ubuntu and activating it.”
“We would like to understand what the concept can add to global understanding,” he continued.
“It’s important for the world to reach a more unified global discourse,” said Stråth.
“The search for a global meta-norm must be based on shared ideas about a common destiny of origin, birth, genesis and coexistence. Democracy, humanism and Ubuntu are important inputs but, of course, not exclusive,” he continued. “The universal should be a global mosaic of values from philosophies and religions all over the world supported by institutions.”
The abstract of Bo Stråth’s STIAS project is available here.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw