The meaning of Ubuntu: I am because you are

Written by Supernova

Jul 15, 2021

Ubuntu is an important word in South Africa. Since our country became a democracy in 1994, the power of our government now rests equally in the hands of all citizens. However, that powers comes with great responsibility. As citizens of South Africa, it is our responsibility to make sure that we live up to the motto of ‘ubuntu’.

‘Ubuntu’ in South Africa

‘Ubuntu’ is a well-known phrase in South Africa. It speaks about the country’s moral ideals, the spirit of togetherness and our ability to work together. Essentially, ‘ubuntu’ means “I am, because you are”.

‘Ubuntu’ represents that we are all connected. It also shows that a person can only grow and progress through the growth and progression of others.

Where does ‘ubuntu’ come from?

The word ‘ubuntu’ comes from African humanist philosophy. In ‘ubuntu’, the idea of community is an important building block of society. It is part of the Zulu phrase “Ubuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”.

Nelson Mandela is the true definition of ‘ubuntu’. He used this concept to lead South Africa to a peaceful post-apartheid transition. He never had the intention of teaching the Apartheid oppressors a lesson. Instead, he operated with compassion and integrity. This shows us how to make a better South Africa. Most importantly, we cannot act out of vengeance or retaliation. We must act out of peace.

What does ‘ubuntu’ mean for us?

‘Ubuntu’ is a reminder for society on how we should be treating others. It is a reminder that every single thing that you do has an effect. Your actions, good or bad, can effect your family, friends, and society. It also reminds us that we need to think twice about the choices we want to make. These choices may have an impact on others.

It is important that we work together with an ‘ubuntu’ mindset. That way, our actions will inspire others to want to be a part of a better and brighter future for South Africa!

South African Ubuntu Heroes

There are many South African heroes who have demonstrated the true meaning of ‘ubuntu’. We remember them for inspiring others to work towards a better and brighter South Africa through their actions and good deeds. Here are two of the most well-known South African ‘ubuntu’ heroes.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is a name that runs easily off the lips of any South African.

Drawing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

He was South Africa’s first black president and he dedicated his life to pioneering the dream for equality.

Drawing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as a young man in prison

Nelson was imprisoned for 27 years and yet he didn’t let that break his spirit. He was released on 11 February 1990 and, with a sense of hope, he began to lead different movements that would change the course of the country.

In 1993, he was the joint recipient of The Nobel Peace Prize along with F.W. de Klerk. This was for their efforts to tear apart the apartheid system. This was a man who stared adversity in the face and fought for all he was worth.

His name, Rolihlahla, translated from Xhosa literally means ‘troublemaker’. Although that normally has a negative connotation, he definitely did stir up change in a positive way. Some also call him ‘Tata’, which means ‘father’. Nelson Mandela became a father figure to many and father of this nation.

Drawing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela delivering a speech as president of South Africa

He was known as a man of honesty and humility. In an interview, he once said, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” You are more than capable of doing whatever you set your mind to – Nelson taught us that.

Albertina Sisulu

Albertina Sisulu was well-known as Ma Sisulu across the country. She was a nurse, wife, a mother, freedom fighter, and mother of the nation.

Drawing of Albertina Sisulu delivering a speech

She dedicated her life to improving and fighting for the lives of others. For more than 50 years, she gave her time to improving the lives specifically of children and elders through The Albertina Sisulu Foundation. She was paramount in the anti-apartheid struggle and she contributed immensely to the social work done by the World Peace Council when she was elected president from 1993 to 1996.

Drawing of Albertina Sisulu cutting the ribbon at an opening

She also helped establish a school for children with special needs, a centre for children from the age of three, and various nutrition and outreach programmes. Albertina was driven by the desire to see poverty abolished and peace welcomed into underprivileged areas. She was set on seeing a new South Africa by being part of putting an end to the horror of apartheid. In 2003, she was awarded the Woman of Distinction Award for a life of unwavering courage and commitment to making life better for all of us.

Albertina died peacefully in her home on 2 June 2011. The hearts of South Africans will remember her for centuries to come. We can also be like her. Let’s give to others, even if it’s just our time.

Drawing of Albertina Sisulu and her husband

How you can practice ‘Ubuntu’ today

South Africa and its people are experiencing a tough time at the moment. But tough times provide important opportunities for us to stand together. ‘Ubuntu’ speaks about the very essence of being human. Let’s spread the ‘ubuntu’ essence of South Africa. You can keep the ‘ubuntu’ spirit in mind by showing that you are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate towards others.

Practicing ‘ubuntu’ shows that you are always ready to help others without anything in return. This compassion and love will make South Africa a better place to live in!

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.

The Dalai Lama
Supernova issue 3.4 cover image featuring an illustration of a husky

‘South African Heroes’ article first appeared in Supernova Volume 3.4

Illustrations by George Asamoah-Awuah

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