The concept of Ubuntu

In 2005, whilst working at St Dominic’s Priory in South Africa, I was fortunate that my governors afforded me the opportunity to attend the Convention of International Confederation of Principals. This was to be hosted in Cape Town and I flew there enthusiastically, eager to learn from keynote speakers and network with fellow Heads from around the world. I have attended many conferences but this particular conference really stood out for me and, over the years, I have often wondered why. Following recent events, I now know that it is because of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The theme of the convention was Ubuntu. For those of you unaware of the term, Ubuntu is a traditional Zulu maxim that translates: ‘A person is a person through other persons’ or in other words; ‘An individual’s existence is relative to that of the group.’ The communal self provides the basis of Ubuntu. It can also be roughly translated as ‘human kindness’ or ‘humanity toward others.’ In a more philosophical sense, it is a belief that a universal bond of sharing connects humanity. In other words, I am because of you; we are dependent on each other to survive and be happy. Each presentation reflected on Ubuntu in different ways and considered the many different aspects of education. This ranged from the emotional life of boys to reforms in global education; from tips to strengthen your school to the heady domain of philosophy. The concept of Ubuntu enables us to understand why Nelson Mandela, despite his incarceration on Robben Island, was forgiving and sought for the peaceful destruction of apartheid. As delegates, we were allowed to visit the island and visit Mandela’s cell. The tour was conducted by a prisoner whose cell was next door to Mandela’s. Despite the hardships this man had endured, his light-hearted good spirit and forgiving nature was an incredible thing to witness.

The Black Lives Matter movement is about the same concept – to me anyway. By marginalising different sectors of society, aren’t we taking away our own humanity? In his keynote speech, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, declared that educators have the high calling to nurture and develop a new breed of human being who will want to be more compassionate and caring, who will be gentle and sharing, who will know that we are one … human family.” He made the statement in 2005, yet here we are again in 2020. Significant sectors of our society continue to feel discriminated against and marginalised. Arguably, change is an evolutionary process that takes time to happen. Following the events surrounding George Floyd’s death, the overwhelming feeling seems to be that change is taking too long.  Indeed, real change may never occur unless there is more direct and determined action. The Nigerians have a saying: ‘It takes a whole village to educate a child’. In Ghana, they exemplify proverbs with literal meanings: ‘A single tree can hardly withstand the pressure of wind, it falls.’ The metaphor drives home the fact that wisdom, knowledge and skills are needed to solve the problems of a country or organisation, often going beyond the capacity of an individual. In the case of Black Lives Matter, the right group of people need to be involved in these discussions to correct the wrongs of the past and ensure that going forward, the future is promising.

Archbishop Tutu said that: ’A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs to a greater whole.’ Whatever views people may have about the way the protests have been conducted, we must not let this distract us from the simple fact that until more people in our world are willing to tackle prejudice in whatever shape or form it takes, prejudice will continue. Perhaps the concept of Ubuntu provides us with a way of thinking about how we can make a positive and lasting difference in the world.

Currently, schools have a lot to manage. We are preparing youngsters to live in an increasingly unpredictable world. Now we are also being asked to drag this sometimes messy world towards a better future, which respects religious and political differences, even if the powers that be seem to be muddling through in open conflict and deceit. The biggest challenge we face at the moment is continued uncertainty. How do we plan for September? The best case scenario is that we return to a school as it was before March 20 this year, although I have a strong suspicion that this will not be the case.  No matter what transpires, it is my biggest hope that all pupils return to school in September in some capacity, even if we have to create a new kind of normal.