Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
VAN DER WALT, J L. Ubuntu values: societal and educational expectations. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2010, vol.50, n.2, pp. 229-242. ISSN 0041-4751.
According to the South African Ministry of Education's Manifesto on Values, Education and Democracy (2001), Ubuntu can be seen as a vital sentiment that emerged from the pre-1994 struggle period. In 2008, President Mbeki gave an illustration of this by referring to the recipients of national awards as "the guardians of Ubuntu". Ubuntu indeed has a special place in the hearts and minds of the people of sub-Saharan Africa, as can be observed in debates about human rights, education, spirituality and quality of life. Those currently in power in South Africa obviously wish to employ it as an instrument for nation-building. In their opinion, adherence to the precepts of Ubuntu could help individuals and their communities to overcome cultural and racial differences in their quest for national unity. Although Ubuntu has traditionally been regarded by the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa as a source of traditional moral values, those values seem not to have been converted into morally justifiable (political) behaviour. How else could one explain the extent of criminal behaviour and the perpetrations of moral injustice (wars, violence, murders, genocide, xenophobia, discrimination against minorities, etc.) across the length and breadth of southern Africa? This article consists of a report on two investigations into the question of why the lofty moral values embodied in Ubuntu have not (yet) been transformed into morally acceptable behaviour. The first involved an analysis of Ubuntu to see what exactly it entailed as a traditional southern-African philosophy of life, as well as to determine why it has so far failed to have the expected favourable impact on community life in the region. The second focused on an analysis of Ubuntuspirituality because of its potential benefits for communal life in general and for education in particular. The problem was approached from two methodological angles. The first was an interpretivistic-hermeneutic approach to Ubuntu as such and to the spirituality embodied in it. This was followed by transcendental-pragmatic reflection on the possibility of "thickening" the as yet "thin" Ubuntu values for the purpose of discovering what could possibly be of advantage to 21st century sub-Saharan Africans (transcendental) as we understand the concept at this particular point in time (pragmatic). The above-mentioned investigations revealed several reasons why Ubuntu might have failed to meet the societal and pedagogical expectations of, for example, the South African government and educational authorities. One of them is the fact that some of its proponents have romanticized a return to Ubuntu as well as to Ubuntugogy, i.e. education based on Ubuntu tenets. It would be unrealistic to expect 21st century Africans to return to Ubuntu in its traditional tribal form, namely an essentially communal life view shrouded in a haze of mystic antiquity. Another reason for its failure to have a benevolent effect on behaviour can be found in the fact that Ubuntu values tend to be "thin", in other words, in need of being "thickened" or strengthened by specific religious and/or life view moral content. Because Ubuntu values have not yet been life-conceptually "thickened", they could not be converted into morally justifiable actions and behaviour. As a result, the term "Ubuntu" began to be used as a relatively meaningless slogan. Despite all these negatives, however, Ubuntu will always have a special place in the hearts, minds and lives of sub-Saharan Africans. It is the typical life view of Africa and as such, it will always signify the embodiment of the shared humanity of the people of Africa. The transformation of Ubuntu into a national life view that could serve as a guide for improving the quality of the lives and education of (South) Africans will depend on the effectiveness of its "updating" or "modernizing". Unless this is done, Ubuntu will be doomed to remain a "vital sentiment" and/or a protean term. It will continue in failing to serve as a guiding light for acceptable moral behaviour and as an instrument for procuring national cohesion. One of the ways in which Ubuntu could be modernized is by filling the as yet "empty" or "thin" Ubuntu values (such as "respect for human dignity") with "thickened" content from other life views. The traditional horizontal spirituality of Ubuntu could also be updated. Instead of seeing a person's worth in terms of the practices and rituals of his or her group, a person should also be recognized as worthy in his or her own right. The same applies for the traditional vertical spirituality of Ubuntu. This could be updated by toning down the view of an individual being as a vital link in the cosmic chain, connected to gods, ancestors and descendants. Modern Africans tend not to conceptualize a person's duties, privileges and responsibilities as injunctions from gods or ancestors. Both individuals and groups should instead be made more aware of social contracts that they might have entered into as individuals and in groups, such as those contained in a Manifesto on Human Rights. In addition, they should feel themselves bound to the moral imperatives flowing from their personal religious convictions and life views which, in modern times, tend to be something other than the Ubuntu life view. This approach gives new meaning to individual and group duties and responsibilities. Ubuntu-based education (that is, Ubuntugogy) as well the Western-style education and training that Africa inherited from its colonial past also need transformation to make them more compliant with the requirements of 21st century life. Their respective views of humanity should be "updated", for instance. The dominant cerebral-analytical bias of Western education should be relinquished in favour of taking into account all the aspects of being human (such as emotion and conation). Western-style education should learn from the "adapted version" of Ubuntu and Ubuntugogy mentioned above that educators need to unfold all the facets and potentials of learners as human beings. Conversely, Ubuntugogy should learn from Western-style education that education entails more than the preparation of an individual for a place and role in communal life. In sum, the "new" education for (southern) Africa should become an existential, holistic and integrated process of equipping children with the knowledge, attitudes and responsibilities required for meaningful existence in modern, globalized, industrialized and urbanized communities. Only in this adapted form will Ubuntu values and Ubuntugogy be able to meet the societal and educational expectations of life in 21st century southern Africa.
Keywords : education; Ubuntu; community; communality; spirituality.