Ubuntu is a Southern African word which means “humanity.” It is often translated as “I am because we are” or “I am because you are.” In his book “No Future Without Forgiveness,” Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop and revered anti-apartheid figure from South Africa, wrote that “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Tutu died on Sunday, 26th December 2021 at age 90. He was well known around the world as an uncompromising foe of apartheid in South Africa as well as racial and other injustices further afield.
Tributes have been pouring in from all over the world for a man who inspired many, including the millions of admirers whom he never met. Current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that Tutu “distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), called Tutu “an inspiration to generations.”
Barack Obama, former President of the United States (US), lauded Tutu as a moral compass and a universal spirit who was concerned with injustice everywhere. The Dalai Lama described Tutu as a “true humanitarian.”
In another of his books titled “God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time,” Tutu wrote: “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity in others.”
Tutu was renowned for acting honourably and speaking truth to power no matter the personal risk that it carried. For instance, in 1953, the white-minority National Party government in South Africa introduced the Bantu Education Act to further their apartheid system of racial segregation and white domination. In protest against the Act, both Tutu and his wife left the teaching profession instead of being enablers of an oppressive system.
Similarly, Tutu held back no punches against the African National Congress (ANC) which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid. In 1998, as the ANC sought to block the release of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which Tutu chaired, due to findings of human rights violations by the ANC, Tutu offered the stinging rebuke that he did not “struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods to replace them with others who are tempted to think they are.”
Reading any of Tutu’s books, listening to or reading what others say and write about him, certainly give the impression that he was an otherworldly figure, especially when we juxtapose Tutu’s convictions against the way the world seems to be today. Ours is a world where we appear to take pleasure in “otherising” or treating people as intrinsically different from and alien to our own selves. We “otherise” along racial, political, religious, social and economic lines. Often, in doing this, we lose sight of the notion of our ubuntu, that we share a common humanity.
In an uncanny way, Tutu’s passing just after Christmas and on the brink of a New Year offers the world a chance for deeper reflection on the kinds of societies that we want to shape and re-shape for current and future generations. Tutu’s legacy demands that we keep on fighting for a more just world, whether that be in the context of climate justice, socio-economic justice or political justice.