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African Human Rights Law Journal

On-line version ISSN 1996-2096
Print version ISSN 1609-073X

Afr. hum. rights law j. vol.11 n.2 Pretoria  2011


Ubuntu as a moral theory and human rights in South Africa



Thaddeus Metz

Humanities Research Professor of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, South Africa




There are three major reasons why ideas associated with ubuntu are often deemed to be an inappropriate basis for a public morality in today's South Africa. One is that they are too vague; a second is that they fail to acknowledge the value of individual freedom; and a third is that they fit traditional, small-scale culture more than a modern, industrial society. In this article, I provide a philosophical interpretation of ubuntu that is not vulnerable to these three objections. Specifically, I construct a moral theory grounded on Southern African world views, one that suggests a promising new conception of human dignity. According to this conception, typical human beings have a dignity by virtue of their capacity for community, understood as the combination of identifying with others and exhibiting solidarity with them, where human rights violations are egregious degradations of this capacity. I argue that this account of human rights violations straightforwardly entails and explains many different elements of South Africa's Bill of Rights and naturally suggests certain ways of resolving contemporary moral dilemmas in South Africa and elsewhere relating to land reform, political power and deadly force. If I am correct that this jurisprudential interpretation of ubuntu both accounts for a wide array of intuitive human rights and provides guidance to resolve present-day disputes about justice, then the three worries about vagueness, collectivism and anachronism should not stop one from thinking that something fairly called 'ubuntu' can ground a public morality.




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* BA (Iowa), MA PhD (Cornell); This work has been improved as a result of feedback received at the Ubuntu Project Conference in Honour of Justice Albie Sachs, held at the Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria; a Blue Skies Seminar in Political Thought hosted by the Department of Politics, University of Johannesburg; a gathering of the Wits Centre for Ethics Justice Working Group; and a colloquium hosted by the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. The article has also benefited from the written input of Patrick Lenta and of anonymous referees for this journal.
1 E McKaiser 'Public morality: Is there sense in looking for a unique definition of ubuntu?' Business Day 2 November 2009.         [ Links ]
2 Y Mokgoro 'Ubuntu and the law in South Africa' (1998) 1 Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal 2.         [ Links ]
3 GM Nkondo 'Ubuntu as a public policy in South Africa' (2007) 2 International Journal of African Renaissance Studies 90.         [ Links ]
4 See several expressions of scepticism about the contemporary relevance of traditional African ideas recounted in J Lassiter 'African culture and personality' (2000) 3 African Studies Quarterly 10-11.         [ Links ]
5 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, docu-ments/constitution/1996/index.htm (accessed 31 October 2011).         [ Links ]
6 Port Elizabeth Municipality v Various Occupiers (2004) ZACC 7; 2005 1 SA 217 (CC); 2004 12 BCLR 1268 (cC) para 37.
7 In particular, see Justice Albie Sachs's remarks in Dikoko v Mokhatla (2006) ZACC 10;         [ Links ] 2006 6 SA 235 (CC); 2007 1 BCLR 1 (CC) para 113, as well as views ascribed to Justice Yvonne Mokgoro in D Cornell 'Ubuntu, pluralism and the responsibility of legal academics to the new South Africa' (2008) 20 Law and Critique 47 56.         [ Links ]
8 I might also fail to adhere to certain stylistic conventions to which academic lawyers are accustomed, and beg for leniency from my colleagues.
9 Comments made at a Symposium on a New Humanism held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) 24-25 February 2010.
10 Eg MO Eze Intellectual history in contemporary South Africa (2010).         [ Links ]
11 Sometimes the word ubuntu is meant to capture not merely Southern African moral views, but sub-Saharan ones more generally. I lack the space in this article to compare the two bodies of thought, but elsewhere I have drawn on anthropological and sociological findings indicating that there are many important similarities between a wide array of traditional cultures below the Sahara desert. If so, then Mbeki's suggestion that ubuntu is unique to South Africans is incorrect. See T Metz 'Toward an African moral theory' (2007) 15 journal of Political Philosophy 321.         [ Links ]
12 An assumption present in M Ramose African philosophy through ubuntu (1999).
13 The following several paragraphs draw on T Metz 'Human dignity, capital punishment, and an African moral theory' (2010) 9 journal of Human Rights 83-85;         [ Links ] T Metz & J Gaie 'The African ethic of ubuntu/botho' (2010) 39 journal of Moral Education 274-276.         [ Links ]
14 As is made particularly clear in Ramose (n 12 above) 51-52. For similar ideas ascribed to sub-Saharan thought generally, see K Wiredu 'The African concept of person-hood' in HE Flack & EE Pellegrino (eds) African-American perspectives on biomedical ethics (1992) 104;         [ Links ] I Menkiti 'On the normative conception of a person' in K Wiredu (ed) A companion to African philosophy (2004) 324.         [ Links ]
15 D Tutu No future without forgiveness (1999) 31.         [ Links ]
16 For representative statements from those in Southern Africa, see S Biko 'Some African cultural concepts' in S Biko I write what I like. Selected writings by Steve Biko (1971/2004) 46;         [ Links ] Tutu (n 15 above) 35; N Mkhize 'Ubuntu and harmony' in R Nicolson (ed) Persons in community (2008) 38-41.         [ Links ]
17 A Shutte Ubuntu: An ethic for the new South Africa (2001) 30.         [ Links ]
18 C Pearce 'Tsika, Hunhu and the moral education of primary school children' (1990) 17 Zambezia 147;         [ Links ] MJ Bhengu Ubuntu: The essence of democracy (1996) 27;         [ Links ] M Letseka 'African philosophy and educational discourse' in P Higgs et al (eds) African voices in education (2000) 186.         [ Links ]
19 Metz (nn 11 & 13 above).
20 For similar expressions from Africans far north of the Limpopo, see S Gbadegesin African philosophy (1991) 65;         [ Links ] K Gyekye Beyond cultures (2004) 16;         [ Links ] P Iroegbu 'Beginning, purpose and end of life' in P Iroegbu & A Echekwube (eds) Kpim of morality ethics: General, special and professional (2005) 442.         [ Links ]
21 Mokgoro (n 2 above) 3.
22 Nkondo (n 3 above) 91.
23 M Munyaka & M Motlhabi 'Ubuntu and its socio-moral significance' in FM Murove (ed) African ethics: An anthology of comparative and applied ethics (2009) 69 71-72.         [ Links ]
24 Tutu (n 15 above) 35.
25 P Kasenene Religious ethics in Africa (1998) 21.         [ Links ]
26 For an analysis of these two different ways of responding to value, see P Pettit 'Con-sequentialism and respect for persons' (1989) 100 Ethics 116;         [ Links ] D McNaughton & P Rawling 'Honouring and promoting values' (1992) 102 Ethics 835.         [ Links ]
27 I refine this approximate principle below.
28 Which I have argued in Metz (n 11 above).
29 I do not address group rights in this article, deeming 'human rights' to pick out the entitlements of individuals.
30 See, eg, R Nozick Anarchy, state, and utopia (1974) 28-34.         [ Links ]
31 For a discussion of the role of dignity in South African jurisprudence, see S Wool-man 'Dignity' in S Woolman (ed) Constitutional law of South Africa (2002) 36;         [ Links ] A Chaskalson 'Dignity and justice for all' (2009) 24 Maryland journal of International Law 24;         [ Links ] L Ackermann Human dignity: Lodestar for equality in South Africa (unpublished manuscript).         [ Links ]
32 For a discussion in the South African context, see D Jordaan 'Autonomy as an element of human dignity in South African case law' (2008) 8 The journal of Philosophy, Science and Law (accessed 31 October 2011);         [ Links ] Woolman (n 31 above).
33 I Kant Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals (1785),         [ Links ] I Kant Metaphysics of morals (1797).         [ Links ]
34 HR Botman 'The OIKOS in a global economic era' in JR Cochrane & B Klein (eds) Sameness and difference: Problems and potentials in South African civil society (2000) (accessed 31 October 2011).         [ Links ]
35 See, eg, Justice Mokgoro's remarks in the South African Constitutional Court case State v Makwanyane & Mchunu (1995) ZACC 3; 1995 6 BCLR 665; 1995 3 SA 391 paras 309-311; Ramose (n 12 above) 138-145; MJ Bhengu Ubuntu: Global philosophy for humankind (2006) 29-87.         [ Links ]
36 I argue the point in T Metz 'African conceptions of human dignity: Vitality and community as the ground of human rights' (2011) 13 Human Rights Review 1.         [ Links ]
37 See J Rawls A theory of justice (1971) 505-506.         [ Links ]
38 For an ubuntu-based discussion of the moral standing of beings who in principle cannot exhibit identity and solidarity, see T Metz 'An African theory of moral status: A relational alternative to individualism and holism' (2011) 14 Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (accessed 31 October 2011).         [ Links ]
39 In order to justify coercion, a parallel principle is widely used by Kantians, who prize the capacity for freedom.
40 Eg Tutu (n 15 above); D Louw 'The African concept of ubuntu and restorative justice' in D Sullivan & L Tifft (eds) Handbook of restorative justice (2006) 161;         [ Links ] A Krog '"This thing called reconciliation Forgiveness as part of an interconnectedness-towards-wholeness' (2008) 27 South African journal of Philosophy 353.         [ Links ]
41 Ramose (n 12 above) 120: 'The authority of law rests in the first place upon its recognition of self-defence as an inalienable individual or collective right ... This is the basis of ubuntu constitutional law.' See also Kasenene (n 25 above) 41.
42 Secs 11-18 & 21-22 South African Constitution.
43 Sec 205(3) South African Constitution.
44 Secs 12 & 34-35 South African Constitution.
45 Sec 19 South African Constitution.
46 JS Mill Considerations on representative government (1861).
47 Secs 26-27 & 29 South African Constitution.
48 Sec 25 South African Constitution.
49 G Nkwinti 'Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Cluster Briefing' 2 March 2010 (accessed 31 October 2011).         [ Links ]
50 See BR Boxill 'The morality of reparations' (1972) 2 Social Theory and Practice 113.         [ Links ]
51 See especially Ramose (n 12 above) 135-152; LJ Teffo 'Democracy, kingship, and consensus: A South African perspective' in K Wiredu (ed) A companion to African philosophy (2004) 443.         [ Links ] A particularly careful and influential exposition is in K Wiredu Cultural universals and particulars: An African perspective (1996) 172-190.         [ Links ]
52 Wiredu (n 51 above) 173.
53 Which principle also neatly entails the injustice of nepotism and cronyism, as I argue in T Metz 'African moral theory and public governance' in FM Murove (ed) African ethics: An anthology of comparative and applied ethics (2009) 345-348.         [ Links ]
54 Wiredu (n 51 above) 180.
55 This phrasing is found in both M Ramose 'An African perspective on justice and race' (2001) 3 Polylog (accessed 31 October 2011);         [ Links ] and LJ Teffo 'Monarchy and democracy' (2002) 1 journal on African Philosophy (accessed 31 October 2011).         [ Links ]
56 S v Walters (CCT 28/01) (2002) ZACC 6; 2002 4 SA 613; 2002 7 BCLR 663.
57 See a draft of the bill amending the Criminal Procedure Act, 1977, regarding the use of deadly force, (accessed 31 October 2011).         [ Links ]
58 Walters (n 56 above) para 54.

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