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'Ubuntu' as a Globalizing Concept: Dilemmas of 'Being Human' in South Africa Today -- Research Conference

One important historical legacy of the predominantly African population of South Africa was that of the indigenous culture of the Khoi-San and the predominantly Nguni-speaking groups. The Europeans arriving later imposed a vast array of extraneous values and norms on the African populations. The political changes after 1990 made way for a recognition of African systems of values and norms that had always underpinned large parts of the society. One of these is Ubuntu. This value system is now generally seen as a backbone of the new South Africa, a unifying philosophy in a society divided and ravaged by apartheid. The noun ubuntu (Nguni) means 'Humanity,' 'Humanness'. Its 'philosophy' is reflected in the African adage 'Umntu Ngumntu Ngabantu', i.e., 'a person is a person through other people'. It has played a major role in the forging of a national consciousness and in the process of nation-building. Ubuntu is defined within an intra-governmental context as having four components: the equality and dignity of all people; an emphasis on humanness and brotherhood of mankind and the sacredness of life; and, finally, it is seen as the 'most desirable state of human life'. Ubuntu is seen as essential in transforming the educational system, the labour process, and systems of management (related work of authors such as Khanyile, Khoza and Morris will be referred to here). Ubuntu underpins the cultural and spiritual orientation of the new nation. It has been embraced in different cultures and languages as reflected in the phrase simunye, i.e. 'we are one', eulogized in word and in song on television and in other news media. Ironically, it is this global aspect of the transformation process in the new South Africa which has surprised the pundits who predicted anarchy, and which has turned the country from a nation cast out of the global village into one contributing to the process of globalization in terms of Humanness and Spirituality. This aspect of 'being human' based on Ubuntu will be closely examined in terms of globalization. It has been transformed from a philosophy confined to the villages and kraals of Nguni- and Sotho-speaking South Africa, to the villages and living spaces of other 'race groups', thus functioning as a unifying factor across these various groups in the country. A study of the contribution made by the Ubuntu idea to the emergence of a new culture that cuts across colour lines, and thus to the process of reconciliation in South Africa, will have relevance beyond its frontiers. This project will be realised rimarily by means of an international conference on Ubuntu, to be organised in South Africa, mid-1999, by Professor V.February (African Studies Centre. Leiden/University of the Western Cape, South Africa), Dr M. Ramose (Department of Philosophy, Catholic University Brabant, Tilburg, The Netherlands), and Wim van Binsbergen, in close cooperation with a broad South African steering committee and the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council), Pretoria, South Africa.


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