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What Is Ubuntu

Roughly translating to mean “I am because you are,” ubuntu is a philosophy from Southern Africa that emphasizes the importance of community, influencing recent moves of reconciliation and inclusion in South Africa, fostered by the late Nelson Mandela. Dedicated to Mandela’s legacy, Carnegie Hall salutes this vibrant nation with UBUNTU: Music and Arts of South Africa, a citywide festival from October 8 to November 5 that celebrates the many threads that make up South Africa’s impassioned culture. To better understand the meaning of ubuntu and its importance, former Rolling Stone South Africa’s editor-in-chief Miles Keylock asks the seemingly simple question:

What is ubuntu?

Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee says it embodies “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Nobel Prize–winning Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu knows that it’s interconnectedness. US President Barack Obama agrees, recognizing it as a oneness to humanity. Singersongwriter Vusi Mahlasela reckons it’s a “moral compass, a code of conduct.” Kenyan novelist Ngugiwa Thiong’o simply calls it “the collective good.” Nelson Mandela felt it was freedom in community. 

“My humanity is caught up—is inextricably bound up—in what is yours.” 
—Desmond Tutu

Editor Jordan Kush Ngubane first popularized the term ubuntu as a black youth liberation philosophy in the newspaper Inkundla Ya Bantu (previously Territorial Magazine) in the 1940s and The African Drum magazine in the ’50s. Since then, few philosophical concepts have been as riffed on as ubuntu—the one taboo seems to be trying to define what ubuntu actually is.

As Tutu once observed, ubuntu is “an approach to life that is very difficult to describe in English words, very difficult to render into a Western language.” It is, he said, “to say, ‘My humanity is caught up—is inextricably bound up—in what is yours.’” 

From a philosophical perspective, it is the converse of Descartes’s rather insular proposition, cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). Ubuntu asserts that a person is a person through other people—as Tutu puts it: “I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.” Does humanity cover it then? Perhaps, if imagined as entanglement, interconnectedness—a kind of ecology of spirit. 

But how to pin down this intricate existence? In South Africa, music becomes the perfect medium to manifest the meaning of ubuntu—not in a sense of symphony versus solo (because you do not have to be in a group to practice ubuntu), but instead in each musician’s striving for unification, for connection with people. Witness the global appeal of musicians, including pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, songstress Miriam Makeba, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and more documented in Lee Hirsch’s documentary Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002).

Music—in all its revolutionary sound and political fury, its cadences and silences and outpouring of soul, its heartache and joy and spectrum of human emotion in between—is the sonic rendering of ubuntu, the human endeavor to reveal the connectedness of humankind despite and in spite of all that seems to make us different. After all, music is only music when it is performed for an audience, its message interpreted and absorbed by those on the other side of the footlights. It is a perfect vehicle for ubuntu as an expression of the hopes and struggles of a community. As Tutu notes, “we belong in a bundle of life ... we cannot be fully human alone.”

Perhaps South African novelist, poet, and playwright Zakes Mda said it best when he posited that ubuntu is fundamentally about racial and cultural tolerance. In his memoir Sometimes There Is a Void (2011), he compares it to the American concept of “forgive and forget,” emphasizing values of brotherhood, charity, and interconnectedness above all else. “The forgive part is very important. But not the forget part,” he writes. “We don’t want to forget. What happened in the past is part of who we are, part of our identity. We remember so that the lessons of the past can be used in the future.”

It’s this reading that was recognized in the epilogue of South Africa’s interim constitution (1993) as a cornerstone of the truth and reconciliation process: “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.” African intellectual historian Michael Onyebuchi Eze extends this when he theorizes ubuntu as “an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference.”

What all these commentators are suggesting is that the meaning of ubuntu takes flight in that moment when we all let go of our self-centered fears and tune into, as Tutu calls it, “the ancient spirituality of humanity’s oneness with our creator—the other—and nature.”

—Miles Keylock
© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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