Ubuntu: a Meta-norm for the West?

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[1] and even the Western enlightenment discourse on universal human rights. 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 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 Africanization. Ubuntu therefore carries the mark of a distinctive African cultural heritage.

When work began on the new South African constitution, ubuntu was used as a means of contributing to the creation of a new national ideology, and it has since wrought significant changes in all branches of the state’s legal system.

This initiative came at a time when the Western enlightenment ideal of universalism, based on the liberal idea of democracy and human rights, was changing. A new norm had been evolving, and it is becoming ever more entwined with an economistic neoliberal vocabulary which is focused on such key words as ‘market’ and ‘globalization’ as the royal roads to realizing these ideals. In this respect, neoliberalism has shifted to a radical economistic hyper-liberalism with ever fewer connections to earlier models of democracy. With the collapse of the financial markets in 2008, disillusionment with democracy set in, and faith in it has not recovered. Instead, it has been overtaken by an aggressive nationalism.[2]

The inspiration for this application was the STIAS theme of “The Future of Democracy”. In accordance with this subject, we aim to seek rehabilitation of democracy by transposing ubuntu, as a political and legal meta-norm, to the Western world. Our field of research may therefore be posed as the question: How can ubuntu capture public imagination and contribute to the sense of legitimacy that is failing the Western conception of democracy?[3]

[1]Lewis R Gordon, “Justice Otherwise. Thoughts on Ubuntu“ in Leonhard Praeg and Siphokazi Magadla (eds), Ubuntu. Curating the Archive. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press 2014:21.

[2]Regarding problems with democracy, both past and current, see Collin Crouch, Post-democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press 2004; Jan-Werner Müller, Contesting Democracy. Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe. New Haven: Yale U P 2011; Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. London: Verso 2013.

[3]This proposal has a valuable counterpart in Boaventura de Sousa Santo’s ALICE project (under the motto of ‘alternatives are not lacking in the world. What is indeed missing is an alternative thinking of alternatives’). URL July 2015 http://alice.ces.uc.pt/en. For a specific study on how ubuntu has been co-opted to a dominant Western discourse to help resolve complex legal disputes, see Tom Bennett: ‘Ubuntu: an African equity’ in F Diedrich (ed) Ubuntu, Good Faith and Equity: flexible legal principles in developing a contemporary jurisprudence. Juta & Co 2011: 3-23

Project leader(s):
  • Bo Stråth (Centre for Nordic Studies, Department of World Cultures, University of Helsinki)

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