January 3

What is Ubuntu? Meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Tutu taught me about ubuntu. With his passing, I am committing my core work to assist our move from the Age of Separation to the new Era of Ubuntu – a change that can minimize our divineness and make peace a reality. But what is this ubuntu – this “golden thread?” Clue: It’s not an operating system.

The South African Interim Constitution and the statute that formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) said “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.” Days before I participated in the first TRC hearings in 1996, I’d read in the Cape Times Tutu’s remark, “We are ready to forgive and build a new kind of country. This was only made possible by God’s special gift to South Africa, the gift of ubuntu.” I had never heard the term “ubuntu” until preparing for the hearings and was curious about a term characterized as God’s gift and included in their proposed progressive constitution. I needed to learn more.

I’d scheduled a meeting with the Archbishop after breakfast in East London in order to record a greeting to lawyers and law students who wished to join our project as international monitors. We met in the back of the hotel restaurant with the crowd of diners buzzing in the background. His large gold cross clanged against the edge of the table. I’m nervous. Here is a man at the center of attention of the TRC and the world week taking time for me in his crowded schedule during this historic week. When we sat down I fired up the recorder and got down to business.

“Archbishop, thanks for meeting with me. I wanted to record a greeting to monitors who may be thinking of coming to South Africa to observe this process—”

At that point, he interrupts me by reaching across the table and placing his hand over mine.

“Yes of course,” he says, smiling with his playful grin. “But first . . . Let’s say hi.”

I’m blown back. In the haste to get him on to his busy day I’d not taken the time to connect, to meet as humans, or to even say hello properly. I was all business. What a gift he’s sharing in that simple moment, demonstrating that a genuine connection in any encounter, be it business or pleasure, is more rich when we take the time to honor and acknowledge each other: The power of saying “I see you” is immeasurable.

I blush and say, “Hi,” and look deep into his eyes. He smiles and suddenly we’re just two grinning humans meeting on more equal ground.

He records a beautiful comment for us to use in our outreach that spoke of the process and international solidarity, which included “Watch as this repulsive caterpillar becomes a gorgeous butterfly.” I could not have asked for more. But I have another question.

“I have read the statute that says ‘there will be ubuntu rather than victimization.’ I don’t know that term ubuntu. Can you tell me what it means?”

The smile returns. “There is no direct translation in Western terms. Ubuntu means I am human through my relations with others. You are a person through other persons. It speaks of social or communal harmony as a human person is seen as corporate. The solitary individual person is in our understanding a contradiction in terms. Ubuntu says I am human only because you are human. If I undermine your humanity, I dehumanize myself. Ubuntu speaks of warmth, compassion, generosity, hospitality, seeking to embrace others. You must do what you can to maintain this great harmony, which is perpetually being undermined by resentment, anger, or a desire for vengeance.”

Then relating it to the hearings: “That’s why you have these extraordinary expressions here of people saying ‘I just want to know who I should forgive.’ And its people who have undergone quite horrendous things. You wonder how they have the capacity to laugh and be human. That is ubuntu.”

Having listened to the victims I understood what he meant. It’s more of a feeling and understanding than a easily definable word. Ubuntu is part of the African worldview of our nature, arising out of the Nguni group of languages. In Sotho languages in Africa it is called botho. In fact it exists in many nondominant cultures around the world. I would learn that the Navajos have a similar term, Ke, and Buddhists, aboriginals in Australia, the ancient Hawaiians, and the Mardu of New Zealand all have similar philosophies that view us as interconnected in a web of life. In the Brazilian rainforest the term Tzai (pronounced “chi”) means “half of what’s in you is also in me, and half of what’s in me is also in you.” They say “we are all branches of the same tree.” Even Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume. For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Ubuntu was anything but new. We had simply buried this innate wisdom along the march to conquer, separate and control.

But I would discover that ubuntu is far from simply a philosophy. It’s a way of life. Tutu modeled it in his respect toward everyone in the hearings and for me in that simple greeting when we connected in the cafe, giving me a deeper experience of its application. It’s what he says “comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished.”

So the Era of Ubuntu will usher in a different angle of vision for dealing with our relationships for ubuntu “envelops” various key values, such as compassion, group solidarity and respect. In its first court decision, Constitutional Justice Makgoro in South Africa wrote that ubuntu can be part of legal human rights jurisprudence in South Africa stating: “Although South Africans have a history of deep divisions characterized by strife and conflict, one shared value and ideal that runs like a golden thread across cultural lines, is the value of ubuntu.”

Time to start sewing.

Read more about Ubuntu in Eric Sirotkin’s book, “Witness: A Lawyer’s Journey from Litigation to Liberation,” available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Click here to purchase.


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