A portrait of Mamphela Ramphele

Lifestyle & Belief

Joe Biden has called for unity. The African concept of Ubuntu offers a path.

South African physician and anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele explains how the African concept of Ubuntu can bring communities together and support individuals at the same time.

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South African anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele speaks to reporters at the East London airport in Eastern Cape, South Africa, after arriving to attend the late former South African President Nelson Mandela's funeral, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013.

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Dai Kurokawa/AP

History will likely recall Joe Biden’s speech at his inauguration on Jan. 20 both for its inventory of America’s present woes and the challenging solution he called for: unity. For a model of unity, Biden might look to the African concept of Ubuntu as a way to heal the many broken relationships in the United States.

In an essay for a book called “The New Possible,” South African physician and anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele explains how Ubuntu can bring communities together and support individuals at the same time.

“The principles of Ubuntu are the original wisdom of all our common ancestors...that the only way they can not only survive, but thrive, is by working together to relate to one another in a way that says: 'I am, because you are.'"

Mamphela Ramphele, author and physician, South Africa

“The principles of Ubuntu are the original wisdom of all our common ancestors because remember: all human beings originated here in Africa,” Ramphele explains. “It is that wisdom that our ancestors began to understand — that the only way they can not only survive, but thrive, is by working together to relate to one another in a way that says: 'I am, because you are.' But also, they developed a very deep reverence for nature. So, Ubuntu is not just about the interrelationships and interdependence between human beings, but also between human beings and all of nature's life.”

“When I say, ‘I am, because you are,’ I am saying to you, ‘I will do everything that I know you need to thrive so that you can do the same to me.'"

Mamphela Ramphele, author and physician, South Africa

She adds: “When I say, ‘I am, because you are,’ I am saying to you, ‘I will do everything that I know you need to thrive so that you can do the same to me,’ because the best life insurance for any species in an ecosystem is contributing usefully to the well-being of other living species.”

Ramphele learned the tenets of Ubuntu from her elders while growing up in a rural South African village in the province of Limpopo, a region she calls “absolutely idyllic.”

“We were at the foot of the Soutpansberg Mountains, and we had a huge extended family,” she says. “You were taught the values of Ubuntu, not by saying, ‘You must do this; don’t do that,’ but by being told, ‘No, my dear child, a person does not do that.’ So, not to live by the values of Ubuntu is defining yourself out of the family of human beings. And when you do something great, they say, ‘That's what a person does.’ So, we were affirmed in this way of life, this philosophy of life that was all encompassing."

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Affirmation is a key concept in Ubuntu. Rampehel defines it as “respect for people because they are human. … And that respect is exhibited by treating other people the way you want to be treated,” she explains.

Many neuroscientists today believe that humiliation is the worst trauma you can visit upon another person, Ramphele points out, because, “unfortunately, one of the consequences of it is that the person humiliated loses self-respect, loses reverence for life. And because they are humiliated, they won't attack the attacker, they tend to attack those closest to them and they tend to attack people who look like them. And, of course, there is a lot of self-mutilation that happens, whether through drugs or through other forms of self-destruction. … [A]ffirmation is precisely to counter any suggestion of treating people in a way that humiliates them.”

What’s more, humiliation gets passed from one generation to the next, Ramphele says. She believes the trauma of humiliation visited upon ancestors through slavery and other kinds of mistreatment “gets patterned into our genetic makeup” [and] gets awakened by any traumatic event.”

“It's like the memory is in our blood, in our genes. And when we meet a traumatic experience, we remember and we react as if we are the ones who have just been enslaved or just been tortured."

Mamphela Ramphele, author and physician, South Africa

“It's like the memory is in our blood, in our genes,” she says. “And when we meet a traumatic experience, we remember and we react as if we are the ones who have just been enslaved or just been tortured. That pain endures from generation to generation unless, in my continent, or in my country, it is ritualized into a healing process.”

The principles of Ubuntu exist in many cultures and in many languages, even when it goes by a different name, Ramphele adds.

“You don't have to call it [Ubuntu], but what you have to do is to recognize that deep down, in all of you, is that inextricable connectedness."

Mamphela Ramphele, author and physician, South Africa

“You don't have to call it [Ubuntu], but what you have to do is to recognize that deep down, in all of you, is that inextricable connectedness,” she says. “Seminal moments in your history in the USA…were when you got together. Whether it's the March on Washington, or even sad occasions, when you were burying your heroes. But also, when you celebrate the coming into office of a new president. That’s when the highest positive energy is in your country. Let's learn from that.”

“I think COVID[-19] has opened our eyes to [the fact that] we cannot be healed, we cannot be well unless the ecosystem in which we are in, including the human community, is well,” Ramphele continues. “We know that human beings and their immune systems function best when they feel loved [and] affirmed — even in the poverty of material things.”

“We now have an opportunity to reimagine a world where we see ourselves as part of nature,” she says. “We are not saving nature. Nature will save itself. We have to save ourselves from this existential crisis by changing fundamentally the way we live, how we relate to one another, and how we relate to the rest of life. And that's the opportunity we have."

This article is based on an interview by Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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