African Culture of ‘Ubuntu’

Culture and Friendship without Borders

Culture and Friendship without Borders (Photo credit: oneVillage Initiative)

African Culture of ‘Ubuntu
African cultural heritage, passed on
from generation to generation, has been
a source of guidance for communities in
times of peace, uncertainty, birth, life
and death. At its best it has been the
basis for identity, respect and self confidence.
It has enabled us to live in harmony with our physical, social and
spiritual environment. It provides our foundation for leadership, problemsolving,
decision making and hope for the future.
This Praxis Note is written from an Eastern, Central and Southern African
Bantu perspective that can be summed up by a concept known as ubuntu.
Ubuntu is a cultural world-view that captures the essence of what it means to
be human. My own experience and that of others suggests that many of the
cultural practices in leadership and leadership development in sub-Saharan
Africa were and are more similar than different (Malunga, 2004; Dia, 1991).
Ubuntu is built on five interrelated principles:
• sharing and collective ownership of opportunities, responsibilities and challenges;
• the importance of people and relationships over things;
• participatory decision making and leadership;
• patriotism; and
• reconciliation as a goal of conflict management.
The positive elements of these principles will be discussed in turn and then applied to leadership development. This is not to say that there are no negative elements of ubuntu. Some of these negative elements arise from the fact that ubuntu principles were mainly practised at a village or community level in a very stable and predictable environment. Part of the challenge that this ‘African model’ is facing today is that it has failed to change with the times and transcend this stable and predictable context. This has resulted incertain ‘shadows’ being cast over the
current practise of ubuntu values, such as:

  • • loyalty to kinship may develop into tribalism;
  • • the belief in chiefs and kings ruling
  • for life could lead to leaders not
  • respecting term limits in office;
  • • fear of unpredictable futures may
  • motivate leaders to try to
  • accumulate as much wealth as
  • possible, or succumb to corruption
  • while in office;
  • values attached to relationships at the expense of personal progress  may often lead to wasteful expenditures on, for example,
  • births, weddings, initiation ceremonies and burials;
  • the value of respect for elders may lead to a blind loyalty to old ideas that may have stopped working; and
  •   the desire for ‘continuity or survival of the village or clan’ may undermine the need for radical change in response to rapidly changing task environments.
  • To compound these problems, the trend towards globalisation implicitly
  • foregrounds Northern values and can give the sense that indigenous values and practices are somehow inferior.
  • The low self-esteem that results from thishas caused many people in the South to abandon their own values and embraces hose from the North. In the past, this was reinforced by missionaries who branded indigenous practices as evil and backward.

The lack of a culture of documentation and reading is another challenge. In
many parts of Africa, culture is passed orally from generation to generation.
However, with increasing external pressures and influences, this oral
process is becoming diluted over the course of time, but is seemingly not
being replaced with a culture of documentation. It was not easy, for
instance, to find appropriate literature even for this study. Much of what is
written about African cultures and leadership is from a Eurocentric view
which casts much of the African culture and leadership in negative light.
Unfortunately, in the past, the negative aspects of ubuntu have been
over emphasised (Sardan, 2004), with the effect of ‘throwing away the bath water
together with the baby’; that is, throwing the good out with the bad. To redress
this imbalance, in the following sections, I have chosen to explore the positive
aspects of the five principles of ubuntu and how they were applied in the past.
1. Sharing and collective ownership of opportunities, responsibilities and challenges
“Your friend’s child is your own child”
Most indigenous African societies believed in taking collective responsibility. Children were seen as
children of the community rather than belonging to their parents only.
Discipline could be meted by any adult member of the community. Children were taught to respect all adults the
same way they respected their parents.
Clan households collectively met responsibilities such as school fees and
other expenses for the children.
When a visitor came to the community, they were a visitor for the whole
community and not only the household.
Members of the community would take responsibility for the visitor. They would
be expected to make contributions for the visitor’s upkeep or take it in turns to
feed them. When a member of the community got sick, the whole
community was affected. The members of the community would be expected to
help in things like taking care of the children of the sick person or help them
with gardening work. When a person died, the funeral was a community funeral.
Cooperation in work and life were encouraged, with real progress was
believed to be that which could benefit all. Those in privileged positions took it
as their responsibility to help the less privileged to rise to positions of
privilege as well, living by the saying that ‘a lit candle loses nothing by lighting another
candle’. They were therefore not expected to be jealous of others rising to
positions of privilege as well.
While encouraging collaboration, each
person was expected to contribute towards the well-being of the clan,
according to his or her age, knowledge, skills and experience. No one was
expected to be a parasite. Only the very young, the old and the sick were
exempted. They believed that problems were better solved by working together
on the assumption that: ‘united, the ants can take a dead elephant to their cave’.
2. The importance of people and relationships over things “Kinship is like a bone, it does not decay”
In indigenous African communities relationships were given very high

PraxisNote 25 — Learning Leadership Development from African Cultures © INTRAC 2006


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