For a number of years, Drucilla Cornell has been studying and reflecting upon ubuntu,1 an African term expressing the idea that humans come into being through interconnectedness and that therefore they have a being, understanding, and set of obligations that emerge in their interconnections. The 2015 article authored by Cornell and South African scholar Karin van Marle summarises ubuntu, compares it with classical Western individualist notions of the self, and considers what it has to offer to Western feminism. The article not only serves as an introduction to a significant African concept, but also challenges Western legal feminism to reflect on its foundational concepts. Although this particular article is relatively short, it is very rich in detail and offers a number of intriguing directions for further reflection and action. In this brief review, I will summarise some key features of ubuntu as presented by Cornell and van Marle, and offer a few comments about its broader significance. My intention is to inspire readers to go to the original article: the ideas are new to me and my rendition of them is short and lacking in depth.
By contrast to Western philosophy, the idea of ubuntu does not permit questions such as “who am I?,” “what do I know?,” and “what ought I to do?” to be addressed separately in the abstract. We are not abstract beings, but become beings in a time and a place, and are always already surrounded by others. Who we are, what we know, and our ethical obligations are connected. As Cornell and van Marle explain,
Ubuntu is a philosophy on how human beings are intertwined in a world of ethical relations from the moment they are born. Fundamentally, this inscription is part of our finitude. We are born into a language, a kinship group, a tribe, a nation, and a family. We come into a world obligated to others, and those others are obligated to us. We are mutually obligated to support each other on our respective paths to becoming unique and singular persons.
As Cornell and van Marle further explain, ubuntu bypasses key Western distinctions between ethics, epistemology, and ontology. Ethical imperatives are embedded in our fundamental connectedness and in the dignity necessarily accorded to all people as a result of the “social bond.” (P. 3.) The emergence of the human in an intermingled, obligated life means that it is impossible to distinguish, as Western philosophers do, the question of being from that of knowing, and that of right action: “Ubuntu in this sense encapsulates how we know the world as well as how we are in it through the moral obligations as human beings who must live together.” (Id.)
Because ubuntu emphasises that humans are “intertwined” in this way, it is not only about our origins and context, it also concerns the production of the future. Activism and critique are built into ubuntu, because community is constantly regenerating and reformulating itself, and because it is up to the participants to acknowledge the ethics of common existence: “human beings are born into an affective network that is constantly being transformed by the participants themselves.” (Id.) The authors describe ubuntu as having not only a radical and critical edge, but also a revolutionary core because it so thoroughly places human beings together in solidarity.
For example, in the context of South Africa, the authors discuss the work of Sampie Terreblanche,2 who, in their words, “describes 354 years of patterns of unfree black labour to underscore that the transformation in the country cannot move forward unless it completely undoes that history.” (P. 3.) As he argues, transformation in South Africa cannot be accomplished by replacing a system of explicit exploitation of black labour with neoliberal capitalism because the economic and social system is still structured by the history of black servitude. Striving to live together in solidarity is a profoundly anti-racist practice and philosophy, because it means openly contesting the ongoing effects of this history. (Such an approach is clearly of relevance in Australia and many other countries where colonialism remains a living practice.) Again, to unsettle a distinction that Western thinkers find hard to overcome, ubuntu is both critical and revolutionary: it encourages both transformation and ongoing reflectiveness and dissent as “there is always more work to do together in shaping our future,” and “the future in a deep sense is always a collective project.” (P. 5.)
This understanding of intermingled lives does have some resonances in Western theory, and in particular in relational feminism and anti-racist feminism. As the authors outline, it adds depth to the linking of feminist ethics and anti-racism. Understanding that social belonging connects everybody and implicates us all in change means that it is not possible to promote oneself at the expense of others, or pay attention to a particular group while marginalising some other group. As they say, “the flourishing of one human being is not separate from the flourishing of all other[s].” (Id.) This does not entail a rejection of the individual – “individuation is … valued, but as individuation, not individualism.” (Id.) We become “unique and singular” individuals in our interconnected situations, and not in any sense separately from community. Thus we are neither entirely relational nor self-determining, but individuals shaped by and belonging to a social context.
There are many further implications of this thinking for feminism generally. To summarise them briefly, ubuntu feminism is described by Cornell and van Marle as including the following elements: surpassing the tension between care and justice; the unthinkability of justice without radical equality; the rejection of an unmodified feminism; and the multiple possibilities for understanding the home and women’s spaces. Finally, they explore its potential contribution to discussions about spatial politics and, in particular, challenging the differentiation of spaces in politicised and gendered ways.
Cornell and van Marle show that the idea of ubuntu has much to offer Western feminism, philosophy, critique, and activism. It might be argued against this proposition that Western thought already has many of the resources needed to underpin and promote a transition to a less individualistic and more egalitarian and connected worldview. It could furthermore be suggested that “external” ideas cannot easily be translated into the different and very resistant context of Western thought. While these points might be true, it is also imperative that Western thought challenge and renew itself by drawing inspiration from non-Western philosophy. Importantly, as the authors point out, there cannot be justice that is ahistorical and merely local. Therefore the concepts and practices through which justice is promoted cannot derive solely from a single tradition, especially one that has pinned so much faith in the sovereign individual. If we are to have a common global future the first step is to understand our interconnectedness and our deep reliance on each other and each other’s well-being. This project of developing a sense of human connection through feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonialist, and other egalitarian movements has always been important, but it is now extremely urgent in the face of exploitative political movements that build support through politics of division and fear.
- For instance, Drucilla Cornell, uBuntu, Pluralism and the Responsibility of Legal Academics to the New South Africa, 20 Law & Critique 43, 47 (2009).
- Sampie Terreblanche, A History of Inequality in South Africa (2002); Lost in Transformation (2004).