“Ubuntu” is an Nguni Bantu (a collective group of languages) term roughly translated to mean “human kindness” or “humanity towards others”. The term was popularised as a worldview in the 1950’s in the writings of Jordan Kush Ngubane in African Drum Magazine. At the time, this magazine was used as a tool for fighting against the oppressive apartheid regime. The articles published were used to expose the injustices of the government and police system and call for unity among South Africans. Some journalists would get themselves arrested simply to report of their treatment within prisons.
By the 1970’s the term formed a specific kind of “African humanism” and was used as a guiding ideal for the transition from apartheid to majority rule. From a philosophical sense, the term is taken to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
It appears in the Epilogue of the Interim of the Constitution of South Africa 1993 saying:
“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 victimisation”.
Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows:
“A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”
So where was South Africa politically and in terms of showing human kindness when the term “Ubuntu” was born? In 1948, the Nationalist Party won the election and began to introduce a new “apartheid policy”.
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that can be translated simply to mean “apartness” or “separateness”. It was a system designed entirely to oppress black South African individuals while making white South African’s lives easier. When this system of oppression was announced, the African National Congress (ANC) reacted quickly by adopting a Programme of Action. In this they encouraged outright defiance against the government and other restrictive laws and racist regulations.
Some of the regulations that were implemented under apartheid began with racial classification and the issuing of passbooks for all black individuals to carry on their person at all times. Racial classification was a humiliating process for many individuals whose race was not outwardly obvious.
Curfews were placed on black South Africans to be off the roads at a certain time of evening. Offenders would be imprisoned for breaking this rule. The Group Areas act relocated different racial groups to new areas to keep all races separate from one another. Individuals living together were removed by force, and their houses demolished with barely any warning.
The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages and the Immorality Act made it a criminal offence to have sexual relations with, or marry any person that was a different race to your own. The Separate Amenities Act ensured that races were kept separate by having schools, buses, hospitals, beaches, restaurants, entrances, restrooms, benches and universities allocated to whites and blacks. The Bantu Education Act was designed to remove black children from schools, rather preparing them for a life as part of the labouring class.
In the 1950’s the ANC called for a stay-at-home in demand of the vote. The strike proved to be successful as more than half of the Johannesburg black workforce adhered to the call. The day ended violently however, when police began shooting and killed 19 people, injuring 30 others. June 26 has since been declared a national day of mourning that South Africans know as Freedom Day.
In 1952, the Defiance Campaign was launched, gaining support from blacks, Indians, coloureds and some whites. This was a call to break unjust oppression and laws and for individuals to offer themselves up for arrest. The plan was to overcrowd the jails, thereby overwhelming the police services and throwing them into chaos.
By the 1970’s, the Black Consciousness Movement began to develop and was taking flight. This was a global movement aimed to restore black consciousness and African consciousness, stripping away oppressive mind-sets that may have begun to take root. The oppressiveness experienced in South Africa was seen elsewhere globally, perhaps at different stages in time, in the form of slavery, colonialism and racism. It was noted that black liberation would come not only from the overthrow of oppressive government, but also from the psychological transformation of the minds of black individuals everywhere.
Apartheid finally came to an end in 1994 when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk worked to unarm the apartheid regime. A long road of forgiveness and reconciliation awaited all South Africans. Today over two decades later, they live and work freely alongside each other.
It was no surprise then, that the term “Ubuntu” came about during this time as a desperate call, a plea even, for South Africans to make a drastic turnaround in their behaviour towards one another.
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