Its warmth envelops you like the benign winter sunshine the moment you set foot on South African soil. You feel it’s embrace in the radiant smiles, hear it in the greetings called out in multiple indigenous languages and in the question: ‘’How are you’’ whether you are at a restaurant in Sandton Square, boarding the Gautrain or trekking the foothills of the majestic Drakensberg.
This is Ubuntu. Whether you see it as a world view, a leadership practice, business ethos or just good old fashioned manners and caring, Ubuntu pervades the country.
What is ubuntu?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, arguably South Africa’s most famous cleric, defines an individual with Ubuntu as ‘’A person [who is] open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole…’’
He elaborates that:
“Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.”
Over the weekend (18 July 2015), Mandela Day was commemorated and the generosity and community spirit of all South Africans was evident as they paid homage to Madiba. Nelson Mandela commented on Ubuntu: ‘’A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food and water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him’’.
These celebrations and my current visit to the country led me back in time on my personal journey. I vividly recalled my early teaching career when my pupils told me they could not do their homework because they had to flee their homes in the middle of the night as their houses were burnt by members of a political party that their parents did not belong to; and the day when Madiba was released from prison and every South African held their breath knowing they were poised on the brink of a proud history that will be narrated eons from now; and as a lecturer, standing in awe in a long, winding queue in Pretoria to cast my vote in the first democratic elections. The Mandela Day celebrations made me reflect that perhaps the currency in which South Africans are dealing is not the weakened Rand but the vision and ethos that Ubuntu perpetuates. Is Ubuntu South Africa’s most precious commodity? Is Ubuntu South Africa’s most prized export? I spoke to Anthony Moonsamy, Chief Director at Gauteng Department of Local Government who draws on Johann Broodryk’s book, Ubuntu – Management Philosophy. He comments: ” …in the context of global transformation,Ubuntu can be seen as engendering the core values of understanding different cultures, learning to respond in positive ways to different cultures, and bringing about unity in diversity. By embracing Ubuntu as a world view and a way of being, peace and harmony will become a part of living and this will negate negativity and hate.” He clarifies that “Ubuntu is about leaders being approachable, treating their team members and community with respect, being able to see another’s point of view, being in another’s shoes. Nothing can replace being human and having humility”
Ubuntu – this vision of caring, collegiality, empathy, respect for the dignity of others – lends to successful business practice. It is more inspirational in that it exists despite South Africa’s shocking, brutal political past.
As an individual whose roots lie deeply entrenched in South African soil I joyfully reap the benefit of being interconnected. This interconnectedness is expressed eloquently and simply by a local who explains: “Ubuntu comes from within. Without Ubuntu you cannot love and show respect. It is who you are. You are born with Ubuntu. Without it you are nothing. Ubuntu is not something you learn to do, it’s something that you have. Nomasonto Tshoka.”
As an executive coach I enjoy collegiality and caring as I have the privilege to work with clients in Europe, South Africa and India. A perfect example of Ubuntu for me (and you!) is LinkedIn. Where else is there a social platform for professionals to be …’’open and available to others, affirming to others…’’?
Further, for my journey, Ubuntu emerges as a model to the practice of coaching. The principles of trust, relationships, asking of questions and genuinely listening, empowerment, affirmation of one’s strengths, all unfold where the spirit of Ubuntu resides.
Ubuntu Imbues us with hope and strength that we are never alone.