Get the Definition and Meaning of Ubuntu

A young South African girl named Malika is lifted by her mother to kiss a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela before a memorial service at the Nelson Mandela Foundation on December 9, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela is closely associated with the ideals of Ubuntu. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Ubuntu is a complex word from the Nguni language with several definitions, all of them difficult to translate into English. At the heart of each definition, though, is the connectedness that exists or should exist between people.

Ubuntu is best known outside of Africa as a humanist philosophy associated with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Curiosity about the name may also come from it being used for the open source operating system called Ubuntu.

Meanings of Ubuntu

One meaning of ubuntu is correct behavior, but correct in this sense is defined by a person's relations with other people. Ubuntu refers to behaving well towards others or acting in ways that benefit the community. Such acts could be as simple as helping a stranger in need, or much more complex ways of relating with others. A person who behaves in these ways has ubuntu. He or she is a full person.

For some, ubuntu is something akin to a soul force - an actual metaphysical connection shared between people and which helps us connect to each other. Ubuntu will push one toward selfless acts.

There are related words in many sub-Saharan African cultures and languages, and the word ubuntu is now widely known and used outside of South Africa.

Philosophy of Ubuntu

During the era of decolonization, ubuntu was increasingly described as an African, humanist philosophy,  Ubuntu in this sense is a way of thinking about what it means to be human, and how we, as humans, should behave towards others.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously described ubuntu as meaning 'My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours'".1 In the 1960s and early 70s, several intellectuals and nationalists referred to ubuntu when they argued that an Africanization of politics and society would mean a greater sense of communalism and socialism.

Ubuntu and the End of Apartheid

In the 1990s, people began to describe Ubuntu increasingly in terms of the Nguni proverb translated as "a person is a person through other persons."2 Christian Gade has speculated that the sense of connectedness appealed to South Africans as they turned away from the separation of ​​apartheid.

Ubuntu also referred to the need for forgiveness and reconciliation rather than vengeance. It was an underlying concept in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the writings of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu raised awareness of the term outside of Africa.

President Barack Obama included mention of ubuntu in his memorial to Nelson Mandela, saying it was a concept that Mandela embodied and taught to millions.

1 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness: A Personal Overview of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission,  © 2000.

2 Christian B.N. Gade, "What is Ubuntu? Different Interpretations among South Africans of African Descent." South African Journal Of Philosophy 31, no. 3 (August 2012), 487.

Additional Sources:

Metz, Thaddeus, and Joseph B. R. Gaie. "The African ethic of Ubuntu/Botho: implications for research on morality." Journal Of Moral Education 39, no.

3 (September 2010): 273-290.

This article expands upon the definition of Ubuntu published by ​Alistair Boddy-Evans