Ubuntu: An African contribution to (re)search for/with a ‘humble togetherness’


  • Dalene M. Swanson University of Alberta




This article is a discussion in two parts. The first part addresses the Southern African indigenous philosophy of Ubuntu, providing it with a working definition and situating it within African epistemology and the socio-political contexts of its invocation. It raises critical concerns about Ubuntu’s embrace in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its promulgation as an ideology within the nation-building project of post-apartheid South Africa. Such concerns are referenced with respect to Ubuntu’s formulation within the advocacies of cultural nationalism. Nevertheless, the discussion commits to perspectives of possibility towards disrupting neoliberalism and decolonizing hegemonic meanings, and advances a debate towards transformation and transcendence within a post-apartheid context. The second part follows on from the arguments in the first part, which set the stage for a narrative journeying of a more personal nature. It offers a reflexive account of how Ubuntu was used as a guiding principle for engagement in fieldwork and the structuring of a qualitative research methodology. The narrative tone is somewhat different to that of the first part, which offers critical perspectives within a broad socio-political discussion. The second part moves from a national level to a local level. It locates more personal interactions and a search for a ‘humble togetherness’ within the context of a township school in South Africa. The article closes with a somewhat cautionary note on how a philosophy such as Ubuntu might be taken up in a political institutional forum that has unwanted implications, but it also advocates for Ubuntu in providing legitimizing spaces for transcendence of injustice and a more democratic, egalitarian and ethical engagement of human beings in relationship with each other. In this sense, Ubuntu offers hope and possibility in its contribution to human rights.