It’s not that Ubuntu doesn’t exist

by Lizel Shepherd

A while ago I was one of a five-person South African team that participated in a cultural exchange programme abroad. Each time we were asked the seemingly straight-forward question about our traditional foods, heated and flavoured debates would erupt. Each of us had such different perspectives but our voices weren’t equally weighted. All of this evidence of the diversity of lived experiences and the complexity of voice in our country. So when I’m asked anything relating to South Africa, my starting point has to be an acknowledgement of the diversity that exists, the need for it to be celebrated and harnessed for social good.

When asked about the culture of giving in South Africa, the first thought that rushes to mind centres around Ubuntu. The first thoughts when others offer a perspective on giving in my country, is often centred on Ubuntu as well. It’s a much-written about concept: an eye-opening lens for sense-making, an ideal that inspires and a powerful way of being. So what then was I to say when someone recently commented to me that “Ubuntu doesn’t seem that apparent when one is in South Africa”? My jaw dropped as I wondered how that sentence was punctuated: was there a question mark or a full stop at the end of the string of words? Was it a question or was it a statement? Either way, I knew I had thinking to do.

My interpretation of the comment is a question as to our humanity and my immediate reaction is about us living in one of the most unequal societies in the world. For the purpose of this vignette, I will hone in on individual giving – in brief – as one entry point to why Ubuntu appears to be missing in action.

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” – Desmond Tutu

Earlier research in the area of individual giving in South Africa suggests that we are a nation of givers.[1] Across income bands – with only slight differences in giving levels across race and gender; the research shows that giving isn’t the domain of the wealthy only. People give of their time, money and goods and despite the preference for giving through formal structures, there’s a significant amount of direct giving. The causes that receive the most support include children or youth, HIV/AIDS, the poor, people with disabilities and the elderly. This study suggests that both charity and development have a support base to draw on. While the research looked at social giving to the poor and volunteering, anecdotally we know that there is a vast amount of informal giving that exists, e.g. giving within the extended family and within communities.

In Giving to Help, Helping to Give[2] diverse forms of local communal giving mechanisms are discussed, e.g.

  • Ukusisa – where a relatively wealthy family loans their cow to a poorer family for food and milk production
  • Ilimo – where the community helps a family to build their hut or at harvest time
  • Stokvels– where people make monthly contributions to a pot of money from which they can draw once a year. Similarly so for burial clubs and saving clubs.

South Africans also give according to the tenets of their faith, e.g. Zakaat, Lillah, Tithing, etc. In the book the point is made that what some would call philanthropy, is seen as familial or community obligation by others. Historically we can look to how the urban poor survived in District Six (Cape Town)  until forced removals: extended families, wage packets, organising systems of redistribution amongst friends, neighbours, workmates, acquaintances and friends of friends formed the cornerstones of survival.[3]

Our communities may have changed and are faced with entrenched and new challenges but there remains an ingrained pattern of giving within the family and community network.

How then can it be said that ubuntu isn’t apparent?

My interpretation of the comment is a question as to our humanity and my immediate reaction is about us living in one of the most unequal societies in the world. The challenges are immense and complex and as such require systemic change. The support we give each other in the day to day or short-term can mostly provide relief at the individual level. Moreover the kinds of familial and communal giving that have been described are under immense pressure as economic woes impact on individuals and their ability to give. Systemic change requires effective collaboration amongst multiple actors, viz. institutional philanthropy, corporates and corporate giving, government and civil society, etc. The subject of another blog. It’s not that Ubuntu doesn’t exist. “But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” – Nelson Mandela

[1] “A nation of givers? Social giving among South Africans” by David Everatt and Geetesh Solanki
[2] “Giving to help, Helping to Give The Context and Politics of African Philanthropy” Edited by Tade Akin Aina and Bhekinkosi Moyo
[3] “What, really, was District Six?” by Don Pinnock



Lizel Shepherd is Programme Co-ordinator: Advancement Training and Support Unita at Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement

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