Ubuntu – I am because we are

“Ubuntu” is a beautiful Zulu word that stands for inter-connectedness. Ubuntu essential means ‘humanity’ but has gone on to have a more widespread meaning emphasizing on spreading kindness to connect people. It is the understanding that we cannot exist in isolation and so Ubuntu is more commonly interpreted as ‘I am because we are’. It means that we are all a sum total not just of our own experiences but because we are social creatures, we are a collective summary of our own as well as the shared experiences of our society.

The Disney movie lion king opens with the mesmerizing song ‘Circle of life’ with its first few lines sung in Zulu. The powerful vocals and African drum heralding the new born lion cub! The circle of life – we go back to where we come from, and within and around this circle we encounter love, despair, success, failure, happiness, sadness, unexpected pathways and obstacles and back we come to where we began.- in one big circle – the circle of our lives. Also, not so surprisingly, each of our circles are interconnected – crossing paths and intersecting at workplaces, homes, subway stations, online and god knows where else!!

Desmond Tutu beautifully said “A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human”. Desmond Tutu was the main modern proponent of Ubuntu. In his book ‘No Future Without Forgiveness’ he describes a person with Ubuntu as ‘open and available to others, affirming of others’.

Ubuntu promotes the following:

– Interconnectedness of everyone to each other and to their surroundings

– No one exists in isolation. We are all part of a larger circle, a large system that effects us and that we are affected by

– It is every person’s duty to share and contribute to the system/ community/society

– Promote fairness and brotherhood. Spread love, integrity and acceptance

Africa’s, Ubuntu philosophy pervades almost all parts of the African continent. It is integrated into all aspects of day-to-day life and is a concept shared by all almost tribes.

In the 1990’s this concept was taken over in South Africa as a guiding ideal for the transition from apartheid to majority rule. Nelson Mandela re-emphasised this innately African philosophy of Ubuntu, to urge people to seek freedom from Apartheid. He said that it is each individual’s duty to support his fellowmen. While each of us must personally grow and enrich our lives we must also enrich the community we live in. We must never forget that we are part of a larger community and with the enrichment and prosperity of the community we will grow as well. This circle, this Ubuntu gives the community and inturn the individual, the power to move mountains.

Several political and private organizations In Africa continue to use Ubuntu as the guiding light for the work they do. Wolmarans (1995:4) reports that South African Airways (SAA) adopted an Ubuntu management system in 1994. Since then, the African Ubuntu philosophy has been a driving force in the company. The secret behind its success has been the publicly stated core values of South African Airways – these include corporate performance, customer orientation, employee care, corporate citizenship, integrity, safety, innovation and teamwork, which are all embodied in the Ubuntu management philosophy. Improved results demonstrate that culture and leadership style plays pivotal roles towards the achievement of a set goals and strategies of an organisation.

As recently as last month, news channels world over aired headlines stating ‘SAA air hostess personified Ubuntu when she tied crying baby to her back’ – a brief article on how an South African Airline hostess Mavis Xotongo came to the rescue of a passenger Kate Whalley – Hands who struggled to put her baby to sleep during a 15 hour flight from New York to South Africa. The 20-month-old baby was restless and crying and unable to sleep.

That was until Xotongo offered to assist and tied the toddler to her back. Kate was able to finish her meal and Xotongo soon handed over a fast asleep baby to the clearly exhausted mother. Kate Whalley-Hands, took to Facebook to proudly share this South African story.

Xotongo had displayed everything Ubuntu stands for – service to one other, empathy, understanding, helpfulness and a sense of duty towards each other. These practices of the Ubuntu philosophy with regard to humanity, care, sharing, teamwork spirit, compassion, dignity, consensus decision-making systems and respect for the environment are all positive elements that could make a contribution towards the improvement of performance of any corporate body or organization.

Values such as solidarity, compassion, generosity, mutuality and commitment to community has found resonance well beyond Africa’s borders. Corporates in Africa and many other continents are adopting the principles of Ubuntu, as they recognize that in this cohesion both individuals and organizations can thrive.