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Published on 14 November 2022

Ubuntu – an understanding of the philosophy

I am because we are.

This statement has been widely accepted as an expression of the African philosophy of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a recognition that the most valuable aspect of our existence is in our relationships, and that human beings are inextricably bound to one another, making our relationships the essence of life. This African philosophy has often been considered in contrast to that of the Western philosopher René Descartes who posited: ‘I think therefore I am’, widely seen as proposing a very individualistic way of being. Ubuntu on the other hand is derived from the already existent relational way of being in many African societies and puts it on the table for consideration.

It was during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which began in 1996, that the term Ubuntu was projected into the limelight. South Africa had just emerged from dismantling apartheid and was struggling to reconfigure itself as a nation. There was much historical injustice to contend with and it needed a way to unburden itself to progress as one nation. The Late Archbishop Desmond Tutu who served as chair of the commission intentionally and appropriately used the philosophy of Ubuntu to guide its intense proceedings. Ubuntu – the realisation that all peoples in South Africa were bound to each other in shaping its future – played a key role. It allowed the individuals who testified before the commission a context to share their deepest pain, for others to accept their responsibility for harming others, to forgive and be forgiven, and yet still walk together in building a new nation. A painful process was made possible under the philosophy of Ubuntu – ‘I am because we are.’

If indeed Ubuntu is seen to be a universal inclusive trait, it should be considered in constructing a new feminist social contract for people and planet. It provides a strong undergirding for this new social contract. A feminist approach is one that strongly values relationships and the interconnectedness of persons, as evidenced mainly in developing countries and the social structures there. It is a trait that strongly connects with the principles of Ubuntu. People are who they are because of participating in a mutually supportive network of relationships, most of which developed organically within their environment.

A feminist approach needs to consider the matter of patriarchy, and how this system of male privilege has been a major obstacle to women fully living out their potential. How does this fit when Ubuntu itself may be a vestige of patriarchy? Can Ubuntu help transform gender and other power relationships and contribute to a more just society? Does Ubuntu find a way past discrimination and enable social equality, gender equality and economic equality, all vital markers for a feminist approach? Does Ubuntu help resolve the question of oppression of women and the negation of their rights, and does it foster an environment that facilitates those rights? Does Ubuntu support a feminist approach for the planet in how we take care of it, especially because women are the ones most affected by climate crises. And more than anything else, does Ubuntu accompany a feminist approach that makes pathways for individuals, communities, and the planet to flourish? These are the questions to be considered in a new feminist social contract for people and planet that builds on Ubuntu.

A feminist approach to relationships

A new feminist social contract for people and planet is inherently an Ubuntu-driven contract because of the value of relationships. Relationships especially in developing nations are recognised as an asset in building resilience, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and facilitating consensus in decision making where the voices of the people who are affected the most are heard. In addressing the need for incorporating more feminist and African approaches to the medical care profession, Hall, Du Toit and Louw weave together the combination of Ubuntu and feminism.

‘A greater emphasis on both feminist and indigenous African moral theories is needed – not only because women and African students become better represented within the profession as elsewhere in society, but also because it is scientifically and socially called for. In the latter regard it will be shown that feminist and African moral theories may address and help to correct the masculine and Western biases lodged within the more established moral theories normally taught in medical schools. In particular, both feminist and African moral theories emphasise relationship and community over individualism. However, a further question arises from this comparison, namely to what extent feminist and African moral thinking are compatible. By drawing out their most salient similarities, we show that there is indeed an important overlap between the two strands of thought, though we also caution against their conflation. Nevertheless, together they stand as an important corrective to still dominant Western moral theories.’

- David Hall, Louise Du Toit and Dirk Louw [1].

It is for this reason that we will be prescribing Ubuntu as one of the important frameworks for this new feminist social contract for people and plant, where relationships undergird nearly all features and determine the richness of our existence.

Ubuntu and assuring peace and security

The images of people that emanate from the Democratic Republic of Congo today suggest that it is a brutal and unforgiving place. These images are in stark contrast to the wild beauty of the vast jungle that is the Congo Forest. But it is a harsh place for people, not because of the natural environment, but because of the seemingly endless civil strife. Still, some may argue that the civil strife is fuelled by the bounty of mineral resources that has attracted both local and international renegade traders who use militias to control the mines, and benefit from maintaining lawlessness in the region. Regardless of what the actual cause may be, the most affected are the local population and specifically women and children. This is a case where Ubuntu has been undermined by extractive industries which in turn has led to the undermining of good governance. That lack of good governance has led to a situation where social structures have been broken. However, despite this undermining of Ubuntu by those who exploit the lawlessness of the region, it may very well be the same Ubuntu that enables these fractured and displaced communities at the grassroots level to be resilient and weather the storms in their displaced state.

Sadly, rape has been the dominant weapon in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at a scale that is unmatched on the continent. The statistics, though stark, are often far from revealing the extent of the damage that the conflict in the region has inflicted on women.

Most of the warring parties of the conflict in eastern Congo, including the Congolese Army, Rwandan Hutu rebels, and Congolese Tutsi rebels, have used rape as a weapon of war. Moreover, rape has become ingrained in Congolese civilian society and is widely used to determine power relations. Men and teenagers rape not only women and girls of all ages, but also other males. An estimated 90 percent of minors in prison in eastern Congo have been convicted of rape, according to the non-governmental North Kivu Provincial Sub- commission on Sexual Violence.

- François Grignon [2].

It is sadly a pattern that has been repeated in many crisis contexts as far back as the Second World War after which it took 70 years for Japan to apologise, in 2015, for using Korean women as sex slaves, known as ‘comfort women’. Women remain the most vulnerable and eventually the major casualties whenever and wherever there is conflict, while these situations of conflict seem to raise the level of male brutality. That in and of itself undermines Ubuntu because it fractures relationships - where a person’s existence is supportive of another and therefore mutual, regardless of gender. Can revisiting Ubuntu help us in the new feminist social contract to stem this tide? Indeed, it can if it overrides any gender biases and power relationships to appeal to the mutuality of communities and extend that beyond gender definitions and gender value apportioning.

We have already intimated that woman clearly have more to lose in crises and conflicts and are therefore more conscious of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. And for women, Ubuntu provides a platform for their appeal, calling for the realisation that our social fabric if torn endangers our entire wellbeing as a society. This could not have been clearer than the narration of an event, one of many such events, of a woman whose husband and sons were murdered in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Premised on Ubuntu, the government of Rwanda instituted local courts known as Gacaca, whose mandate was to foster reconciliation between the victims and their perpetrators to rebuild their communities. In this incident, the perpetrator of the crime confessed to murdering the woman’s husband and sought forgiveness. He had also lost his family in the resultant crisis when the Rwandan Patriotic Front moved in to end the genocide. The outcome of the Gacaca courts process was that the woman not only forgave but also embraced the perpetrator and adopted him as her son.[3]

The psychological aspect of healing is imperative because those who have experienced the horrors of violent conflict are often scarred emotionally and left traumatized. In addition, healing at the psychological level allows for the rebuilding and mending of broken relationships, which is necessary for human society to remain intact. Scholars and practitioners contend that psychosocial healing is an effective way to reconstruct and rebuild society with an improved quality of life. The Gacaca process in Rwanda is a method of culturally sensitive approaches to psychological healing. Gacaca in Rwanda is a traditional mechanism of conflict resolution that attempts to address trauma and post-conflict reconstruction needs of that country’s post-1994 genocide.

- Samuel Hinton [4].

There may be questions raised about whether justice is being subordinated to reconciliation, and rightfully so. However, the aim of Ubuntu in conflict resolution is hardly ever just to punish the perpetrator. It also recognises the healing of the victim. Ubuntu understands that the interconnectedness of individuals means the entire community carries the weight of the offended and the offender, and it sets up mechanisms to handle both. A new feminist social contract for people and planet should consider conflict resolution not just from a winner-takes-all point of view, which is what most Western-premised legal systems seem to promote. There is another way, and that is seeing the wholeness of a person and that the very wholeness comes from community. It is the community that stands judged and where reconciliation happens, the community rises healed. Hinton continues to say:

… Ubuntu and Gacaca are connected. Ubuntu came into prominence during the liberation of Zimbabwe and South Africa respectively. Ubuntu stressed a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, and a need for forgiveness but not for victimization. Gacaca stressed a need for restorative justice, not retributive justice, a need for forgiveness, not vengeance, a need for rehabilitation, not expulsion, a need for conversation, not agitation, a need for reconciliation, not division, and a need for sustainable peace, not protracted war. A Ubuntu-Gacaca model has global relevance to the achievement of sustainable peace and development in post-conflict societies.

This is the contribution that Ubuntu can make towards a new feminist social contract for people and planet.

Ubuntu and a new feminist relationship with creation

The challenge of humanity recently has been that of dichotomy in its relationship with the planet. In the last century, the push for development and growth has set the planet on a trajectory towards an inhospitable dwelling for its inhabitants, with people living in poverty at the sharp end of the consequences.

It has seemed increasingly difficult to think that human development can take place while also protecting the environment. However, statistics are very clear about who is losing out. Some of the species lost in our generation, whether animal or plant, may never be recovered and that will always put the entire planet at a disadvantage. Some of these statistics indicate that in the last 100 years the planet has lost an amount of valuable forest land similar to that which was lost in the preceding 9,000 years.”[5] 

That says something about the accelerated rate of disharmony between humans and planet.

Why is it important for there to be a feminist social contract for the planet? There is no question that it is women who suffer most from the climate crisis. The scarcity that has been experienced at different levels due to extreme climate conditions means a lot more is demanded of women. This is primarily because women are in most cultures of the world seen as the custodians of domestic welfare. Therefore, when there is drought and the sources of water dry up, it is women who have to venture further away from their homes in search of water. With the increase in deforestation coupled with a lack of available and affordable sources of clean energy, it is still the women who have to venture further in search of fuels that are needed to make family meals. More is demanded of women to do this, and no less on their resources. Their candle is burnt from both ends. It is therefore important that women – as those most affected – contribute the most in framing this new social contract.

Ubuntu provides suitable accompaniment in considering the feminist social contract for planet through the perspective it provides for taking care of the planet and creation. This recognises the people who are affected and the contribution they can make from within their context. This is especially important because indigenous epistemologies are unjustly overlooked in creation care.

However, when developing and implementing adaptation strategies, cognizance must be allocated to the unique cultural values of various stakeholders. This is often not the case as cultural value systems of communities are neglected in these processes, e.g. the African values system of Ubuntu (which focuses on relationality). It is imperative to investigate and compare individualistic-capitalistic Western values (with its focus on sustainable development and economic growth) and the values of Ubuntu as it pertains to environmental ethics. Both value systems attribute different significance to relationality between humans, non-humans, and the natural environment. From this, I argue that the individualistic-capitalistic West has much to learn from Africa’s Ubuntu and the ensuing potential for climate change adaptation. Subsequently, a call for a universal paradigm shift will be made, away from the economic and development foci of individualistic-capitalistic values, towards Ubuntu degrowth which prioritizes communitarianism, and the principle of sufficiency. I suggest that relevant and diverse stakeholders meet around the “global roundtable” to consider and discuss different perspectives and cultural values when developing climate change adaptation strategies on a global level.

- Aïda Terblanche Greefé [6].

A new relationship that re-examines our beliefs and values

The problems we are facing today around the environmental crisis call for us to question and re-examine the beliefs and values that got us into this problem in the first place. As a Christian Aid report would say, we need to question our unquenchable thirst for growth. The demands for more in our lifestyles have necessitated the need for more material to be generated which in turn has led to more natural resources being used up, and indeed being used up faster than they can be replaced, if they can be replaced at all. What we then have is a planet that is wounded and scarred irretrievably. Therefore, if what remains of it is to be redeemed and protected from the clutches of our greed, it will have to start with those moral and philosophical drivers of this greed. In partial recognition of this, Gus Speth, who helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council and was dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, told a British radio presenter in 2013:

I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

- Gus Speth [7].

A new feminist social contract for the planet cannot concern itself only with the hardware aspects of the problem. This new social contract must address the mentality of greed. It must challenge the notion of thinking about ourselves and not about others. It must be alive to the reality that the existence of the planet is solidly linked to our existence – we cannot destroy it without destroying ourselves – and that the root of all this is moral and spiritual, expressed in our values and beliefs. If that is the case, then the Ubuntu philosophy is one that we should consider when accompanying the new feminist social contract primarily because it challenges the egocentric mentality that underpins a lack of care for others and planet. In contrast Ubuntu promotes the thinking and values that underscore care for others and consideration for their wellbeing. This mentality can spill over to our relationship with creation and help to build solidarity with the planet that is alive to our interdependence.

Ubuntu and human flourishing

There is increasing demand that international development considers factors other than gross domestic product (GDP) and related capitalistic parameters of measurement. There is more to human flourishing than these material indices. And Ubuntu gives us an avenue to look into those things. One of the critical elements that has been considered for human flourishing is relationships, which has already been established in this essay. Where people have rich relationships and a sense of neighbourliness, there is the resonance of a more fulfilling life. When people develop ways of supporting each other, their mental wellbeing in the midst of challenge is relatively better than communities that have less robust relationships and community. When people live in harmonious communities, they are more resilient in the face of crisis and can withstand shocks much better than those whose lifestyles are more individualistic. The ability to stand by each other and rebuild community and community assets is a major part of Ubuntu.

A new feminist social contract for people and planet should see assets beyond simply what individuals own. It should look to promote communal assets. Second, this new contract should see beyond material assets to those that add value to the whole person, and promote human flourishing in non-material terms.

Human flourishing has also been noted as being connected to spirituality and faith. This is something that development actors are increasingly recognising and including in their work with communities. Faith or a relationship with a divine being is seen as fundamental to the wellbeing of many communities. This global phenomenon has been noted as enabling communities, where practised, to rise above their challenges. Most sacred texts relate to the challenges of people and inspire them with hope. These sacred texts often reference the lived experiences of people on the periphery in a manner that inspires affected communities in their current context. Faith is also a convenor of people in community, where they find mutual support and stand in solidarity with one another.

While Ubuntu has a special focus on relationships, it does not overlook the importance of spirituality in these relationships. It recognises divinity in the community as part of the strand that fuels and enables relationships to thrive. Spirituality or faith guides the moral principles of communal relationships. Without these, the social contract in Ubuntu would be valueless. Therefore spirituality provides the values that society can peg to the way in which the individuals relate to or behave with one another.

This provides a suitable accompaniment to a feminist social contract for people and planet where human flourishing becomes a contextually appropriate measurement for human progress.

Challenges to Ubuntu today and lessons for a new feminist social contract

Ubuntu, just like other moral and social philosophies, is set back by individual and societal greed – that insatiable appetite for more. This trait poses a threat when it marginalises individuals and threatens the wellbeing of communities – where individual progress and self-aggrandisement has replaced that sense of communal progress and wellbeing. Sadly, the transgression of Ubuntu can be seen as far back as the slave trade, where leaders of particular tribes abetted this evil, capturing their women and men then selling them off to slave traders in exchange for material possessions. A point can be made here that relationships, even in the global South where they are rich, are not and have not always been just, but also exploitative. In such cases, the sense of community or social cohesion is based on these exploitative structures. But it is equally worth noting that the corruption of Ubuntu in pre-colonial times was very much tied to the interaction and engagement with external peoples who induced communities to turn against others and introduced the allure of wealth and power, corrupting their cultural value system.

The very things that some African forefathers, for example, did in selling their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers to the slave traders, are the very things that many African leaders have been doing for the last 60 or so years since African states fought for and gained independence. They have plundered the state resources, auctioned the natural resources of their countries and enriched themselves at the expense of most of the populace. They have bought villas in European cities while their own people can barely survive a rainy season with leaking roofs. They send their children to prestigious institutions of learning, yet the state schools are crumbling under the weight of an enrolment four times what the planned infrastructure can shoulder. The leaders get the best medical treatment abroad while their fellow citizens share beds in public hospitals. Institutionalised greed is such that it is almost standard to give or receive a bribe for services. And now, leaders continue to capitalise on ethnic and tribal sensitivities to mobilise support for their own selfish ends, something which now characterises election cycles across the continent. And in other instances, a country like South Africa which benefitted from the support of neighbours in the struggle against apartheid is now turning against immigrants from those nations in heightened xenophobic attacks. It is scarcely evident that ‘I am because we are’.

It is no surprise that the violation of human rights, especially those of women, closely follows behind such behaviour. South Africa as an example has one of the highest incidents of gender-based violence in the world.

How can the role and nature of Botho/Ubuntu in African societies be reconciled with the many incidences of violations of women and children’s rights we witness in modern society? How have African societies travelled from historical perspectives that highlighted definitions of integrated individual and collective humanity of all peoples to current violations that include far ranging sexual and emotional violence, forced marriage and other systemic abuses and discriminatory behaviour towards women and children? How have understandings and definitions of humanity, of the roles and status of women and children across the years been distorted and come to promote patriarchal systems of power that undermine the core notions of Botho/Ubuntu in African communities?

- Graça Machel and Theo Sowa [8].

Women need to be brought to the table to discuss solutions for women. This does not happen easily especially where patriarchy still prevails. Yet we could surmise that where women have a voice and a say, incidents of Ubuntu-drift – if that term can be used – would have been at the minimum. It is difficult to see a society that has women at the core of influence and decision making being active in the trading of their fellow human beings to others for a few rifles and trinkets. It seems far-fetched to imagine a feminist ideology-influenced community that would allow women and children to suffer in hospitals while others in high echelons live like royalty and with little regard for the plight of those on the periphery. A feminist social contract is certainly one that would not condone such actions. A feminist social contract would be alive to the pain of others and seek instead the gain of others. Women tend to be seen as being more compassionate towards fellow human beings than men and more readily stand in solidarity with others especially in their pain and suffering.

On the other hand, Ubuntu-drift is more likely to happen in a male-dominated society. Modern history and our present politics illustrate the male  gender  as seeming perennially in competition for resources and power. Ubuntu-drift increases where social stratification is enhanced through the accumulation of this power and resources in the hands of few. It comes about when this mentality of acquisition and self-aggrandisement becomes a culture in the society and makes the society a people of greed. The likelihood of this culture growing would be severely diminished in a society with a feminist core. Instead, Ubuntu is likely to be maintained as a driver for the welfare of the society when it accompanies a feminist agenda.

In referencing again the aspect of a male-dominated society, we have to contend with affirming values being pegged to male virtues or personality.

However, a serious challenge with Ubuntu as personhood or human identity, is its masculine and patriarchal leanings resulting in ubuntu being “exclusive and discriminatory” (Manyonganise 2015:3–4). Th is envisioning of human personhood in masculine terms expresses a limited vision of human flourishing that discriminately favours the welfare of men over the welfare of women. The limited vision of human flourishing is also demonstrated by the fact that while claiming ubuntu, many African communities continue to favour the socioeconomic development of boys over that of girls. In many ubuntu professing communities, human development is conceptualised in masculine terms, for example it is common to hear the Ndebele praise a successful woman as yindoda ngokwakhe (she is a man in her own right) or yindoda mfazi (she is a man-woman). Even in modern ubuntu professing communities, the ideal woman and or ideal child continues to be in terms of subservience instead of fully flourishing in their human endeavours.

- Collium Banda [9].

The challenge remains clear – that even with an Ubuntu-driven feminist social contract, we have to be alive to the vestiges of patriarchy that can compromise the purpose of choosing such a framework. It calls for diligent praxis by ensuring that women are at the centre of it.

Conclusion: drivers for promoting the new feminist social contract with Ubuntu

The thrust of Ubuntu in promoting a new feminist social contract for people and planet will need pillars around which it can be developed in contemporary society. We should look at the places where that philosophy is found or reflected and seek ways in which these pillars can be developed as models for promoting the feminist social contract.

Faith groups and particularly the church seem to have in their structure a value for Ubuntu. This is reflected in the records of the early days of the church where the groups of Christ’s followers decided to pool together their resources to the effect that no member of their community was disadvantaged in any way.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.[10]

There was an equality of all those in the community which came from an adjustment for some of their lifestyle choices. They not only brought their material possessions to be distributed equally, they also chose to pursue values that would support the building of a new community where there was a clear dependence on one another and a desire to build a more equal and just community.

To date, the church and faith groups continue to carry and propagate the philosophies of Ubuntu in their structure through community support systems and raising resources for benevolent action, the gathering of people for mutual edification, and the propagation of a value system through instruction that seeks to dignify humans as made in the image of God. The church and faith groups are increasingly accepting the challenge to be less patriarchal in their commentaries on social structure and social justice. And foremost, the challenge to adjust lifestyles so that we do not negatively affect others and planet, is one whose teachings when lived out can be emulated as part of constructing a new feminist social contract.

Another potential driver for Ubuntu in the new feminist social contract is communities that are still rooted in traditional values. For many of these, there is still a premium on relationships as core to their communities’ existence and welfare. These communities and values are mostly found in the global South. Where they are still present, they have managed to negotiate the allure of material wealth and power which quickly corrupts Ubuntu, and which is often accompanied by what some would call a toxic masculinity. They have managed to find a co-existence with the environment in which each benefit from the other, and each nurtures the other. They have a spirituality that encompasses all of creation and values the divine in everything. They may very well be another frontline for a new feminist social contract for people and planet. Indeed, we may have to look back to look forward. And that is what Ubuntu as a framework can do for us.


[1] Feminist ethics of care and Ubuntu, David Hall, Louise Du Toit and Dirk Louw, 2013,

[2] ‘Rape as a Weapon of War in Congo’, François Grignon, International Crisis Group, 11 June 2009,

[3] Narrated to the writer by a friend from the region.

[4] The Connection Between Ubuntu Indigenous Philosophy and the Gacaca Traditional Judicial Process in Rwanda, Samuel Hinton, US-China Education Review B, 2015, 5(1), pp392-397,

[5] The world has lost one-third of its forest, but an end of deforestation is possible, Hannah Ritchie, Our World In Data, 9 February 2021,

[6] ‘Ubuntu and environmental ethics: the West can learn from Africa when faced with climate change’, Aïda Terblanche Greefé, African Environmental Ethics: A Critical Reader, Edited by Munamato Chemhuru, p106.

[7] Gus Speth, radio interview, 2013.

[8] ‘Session IV – The Role of Botho/Ubuntu in Modern Responses to Children’s and Women’s Rights Issues in Africa’, Graça Machel and Theo Sowa, 2017 Mind & Life Dialogue XXXII Session, Mind & Life Institute,

[9] Ubuntu as human flourishing? An African traditional religious analysis of ubuntu and its challenge to Christian anthropology, Collium Banda, Stellenbosch Theological Journal, 2020, 5(3), pp203-228,

[10] Acts 4:32-35, the Holy Bible, New International Version.