In this three-part series, Toronto Review correspondent Sigrun Marie Moss will examine Ubuntu, the meta-philosophy of Sub-Saharan Africa. This dispatch, the third and final installment, examines Ubutu’s effect on African conflicts, specifically whether the belief may sometimes serve to escalate, rather than decrease, the severity of ongoing conflicts.

By Sigrun Marie Moss

TANZANIA—As described in my two last articles in this series, Ubuntu is an ancient African meta-philosophy in Sub-Saharan Africa that essentially means ‘I am my self through you’. It is often described as a quality that includes the essential human virtues of compassion and humanity. The word itself originates from the South African languages Xhosa and Zulu, and is often said to stem from the proverb; “A person is a person because of persons.”

According to Desmond Tutu (1999:42) it is difficult to translate the concept into western languages: “Ubuntu is about the pure essence of being human. Rather than ‘I think, therefore I am’, the focus is on; ‘I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.’ ” The authors Triandis, Lisansky, Marin and Betancourt (1984) describe ubuntu as a concept which prescribes the giving of sympathy and help to those who need it and showing respect for the dignity of others.

The material on ubuntu (see Malan, 1997, Nussbaum, 2003, Berg, 2004, Murithi, 2006) seems to be almost exclusively positive. Made know to the world through the reconciliation work in South Africa, ubuntu is now commonly hailed as peace making wisdom, entailing great potential for conflict resolution in Africa. May it also come with negative side effects? Since it fosters unity and community, what happens if you fall outside that community: if you are a Zimbabwean living in South Africa; if you are a Southerner in North Sudan; if you are a Hutu and not a Tutsi? Does ubuntu function as a continent-specific factor that hinders the regional disputes seen in Africa from becoming as extensive as these would have grown elsewhere, or does it possibly contribute to enhance group friction?

Ubuntu as peacemaking wisdom

We all derive our sense of meaning from our individual cultures. Cultural attitudes and values provide the foundation for the social norms by which people live. What we find appropriate and helpful in dealing with conflict, and what behaviour we expect from others, will vary greatly from culture to culture. Many have advocated the use of cultural conflict resolution tools to deal with Africa’s many protracted conflicts: “Progressive cultural principles which promote human dignity and the well-being of the individual and society can provide valuable insight into how Africa can be peacefully reconstructed by using its own indigenous value systems which emphasize promoting social solidarity” (Murihi, 2006:10).

Ubuntu as a conflict resolution mechanism, solves disputes in on five stages in the context of Sub-Saharan Africa:

  1. After a fact-finding process, the perpetrators – if considered to have done wrong – are encouraged to acknowledge responsibility.
  2. Perpetrators are encouraged to show genuine remorse, or to repent.
  3. Perpetrators are encouraged to ask for forgiveness, and victims are encouraged to show mercy.
  4. Perpetrators would be required to pay compensation or reparations.
  5. In trying to consolidate the whole process, all parties are encouraged to commit themselves to reconciliation (Murithi, 2006).

The process places much focus on the transformation of relations, which overlaps with many definitions of peace building and conflict resolution. Lederach (1997:20) defines peace building as “an array of processes, approaches, and stages needed to transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships.” According to Fisher (2006:189) conflict resolution “involves a transformation of the relationship and situations such that solutions developed by the parties are sustainable and self-correcting in the long term.”

Murithi (2006) says the process is not always straightforward, but emphasizes that the “wisdom of this process lies in the recognition that it is not possible to build a healthy community at peace with itself unless past wrongs are acknowledged and brought out into the open so that the truth of what happened can be determined and social trust and solidarity renewed through a process of forgiveness and reconciliation” (Murithi, 2006:21).

Ubuntu contributing to escalating conflicts?

As Murithi said above, the process is not always straightforward. I will focus on two aspects that I think may have the capacity of making ubuntu – in some settings – a contributing factor to the escalation of conflict, rather than the peace-making wisdom it may be in other cases.

1. Increased gap between groups

Ubuntu clearly places a lot of emphasis on community. But what about those not included in the dominant conception of community? Can ubuntu actually make the differences between groups larger? None of us manage to go through life without having in-groups (groups we belong to) and so-called out-groups (groups we don’t belong to) – and the differences and spaces between these are often exacerbated by and within conflict.

Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory is often used in attempts to understand the basis of inter-group discrimination. The theory says that people derive positive social identity and satisfy requirements of positive self-esteem, through successful inter-group bias. Hewstone, Rubin and Willis (2002:576) define inter-group bias as “the systematic tendency to evaluate one’s own membership group (the in-group) or its members more favourably than a non-membership group (the out-group) or its members.”

Our group memberships are important to us. Strategies like ubuntu, which focuses on the community through the philosophical notion of “I am me through you,” could enhance the importance of the in-group. This is not necessarily problematic – it’s not necessarily the case that if you identify more strongly with your in-group, that you will automatically devalue your out-groups more. The social identity theory holds that after being categorized as a group member, individuals seek positive self-esteem by differentiating their in-group from the out-group on some valued dimension. Individuals are likely to display favouritism when an in-group is central to their self-definition, and ubuntu may strengthen the ‘we’, which may again lead to an enhanced personal bias toward one’s in-group.

Berg (2004:248) says that she is “convinced that if it had not been for the spirit of ubuntu the reconciliation proven in South Africa would not have been possible.”

If ubuntu did play a large part in the peace building in South Africa, this could of course be used as an argument against the idea that ubuntu increases the gaps between groups, since black and whites eventually started overcoming their tortuous past in an effort to create a new society. However, Gibson (2004) found that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa did generally not bring about more conciliatory attitudes among black South Africans. The white and Asian South Africans on the other hand showed attitude changes following from the TRC. According to him, many black South Africans complain that the TRC exacerbated the racial tensions in the country, and that the actual outcome of the commission was embitterment and less willingness to coexist. He suggests this could indicate the truth and reconciliation process had its main effect on the part of the population that was less directly affected by the apartheid, whose social identity was less threatened.

2. Re-traumatization

Murithi (2006) argues that ubuntu in peacemaking is not always straightforward. There may be many obstacles. If we look at the five stages he presented, perpetrators may not want to relive the episodes, the victims as well may very well be reluctant to ‘dig up the dirt’, there may not be remorse, there may be no forgiveness, and so on and so forth. These aspects could cause a re-traumatization of the involved individuals, and thereby worsen the situation.

The five-step model of ubuntu has much in common with the local courts of Rwanda: the Gacaca courts. Brounéus (2008) wanted to see whether appearing before the Gacaca court yielded the alleged healing or closure. She interviewed 16 Tutsi and Hutu women who had testified. None of the women considered testifying for the Gacaca a healing experience; on the contrary, all of them reported intense psychological suffering from testifying, which challenges the notion of the healing properties of truth mechanisms. All of the women had also experienced a deteriorating security situation since their testimony, with physical and psychological abuse, threats, and harassment of themselves, their property and their families. According to Brounéus (2008:57) “traumatization, ill-health, isolation, and insecurity dominate the lives of these testifying women.” She points to the recommendation from Rose, Bisson, Churchill, and Wessely (2002) that the practice of early psychological intervention after trauma, the so called one-session debriefing should stop, as it may increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Such one-session debriefings have much in common with the five-step model of ubuntu. On the other hand, other researchers and journalists (see Neuffer, 2001) report of feelings of empowerment after testifying in Rwanda, telling us that what is right for some is very wrong for others and vice versa, calling for caution in using these peace building mechanisms.

Ubuntu as peacemaking wisdom or conflict escalating factor?

The outcome of ubuntu would depend on ones goals: it may work well in restoring peaceful relations within a community. It may however increase tension between one community and others, since the level of in-group bias might rise, due to enhanced bonding as a result of danger, trauma or conflict. From this we can see that it may be important whether or not the conflict is within a group or between groups, and how large the social categories in question are. It could arguably be easier to move from Hutu/Tutsi to Rwandan, rather than from Norwegian/German to European, or even Iraqi/ US to human being. It is often assumed that the larger the categories, the less important they are to us. This could make for an important differentiation worth noting in the application of ubuntu.

I do not mean to derogate the concept of ubuntu. I have seen such fantastic and mind-blowing forgiveness in Africa. In Kigali some friends of mine and I met an old man, and he told us to go visit a church. “Please go there and pass on my greetings to my whole family: my wife, my mother and my children. They are all there – still on the floor where they were massacred in 1994.” We asked how you live with a loss like that, and the old man told us that he had found God, and “We are no longer Hutu and Tutsi, we are now Rwandans.”

Mandela (1997:324) said: “The spirit of ubuntu – that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings – is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.” And I agree – Africa’s togetherness and humanity has much to teach the rest of the world. My point however is that  incorporating a concept’s potential negative side effects, as well as all its positive contributions, could make the active use of tools and philosophies such as ubuntu all the more positive.


Berg, A. (2004). Ubuntu – a contribution to the “civilization of the universal”, in T. Singer & S. L. Kimbles (Eds): The cultural complex. Contemporary Jungian perspectives on psyche and society. New York: Brunner – Routledge.

Brounéus, K. (2008). Truth-Telling as Talking Cure? Insecurity andRetraumatization in the Rwandan Gacaca Courts. Security Dialogue, Vol. 39, No. 1, 55-76.Fisher, R. J. (2006). Intergroup conflict. In M. Deutsch, P. T. Coleman, & E. C. Marcus(Eds.) The Handbook of Conflict Resolution. Theory and Practice (2nd ed.) San Francisco:Jossey – Bass.

Hewstone, M., Rubun, M., & Willis, H. (2002). Intergroup bias. Annual review of psychology, Vol. 53, 575-604.

Lederach, (1997). Building peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies.Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Malan, J. (1997). Conflict resolution wisdom from Africa. Durban: ACCORD.

Mandela, N. (1997). Religious heritage, in K. Asmal, D. Chidester and W. James (Eds.) Nelson Mandela: From freedom to the future. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball.

Murithi, T. (2006). African approaches to building peace and social solidarity. The international conference on strategies for peace with development in Africa, The University for Peace, & the African union, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 12 – 14 June 2006.

Neuffer, E. (2001). The key to my neighbour’s house. Seeking justice in Bosnia and Rwanda. New York: Picador.

Nussbaum, B. (2003). Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African on our common humanity. Society for organizational learning. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Tutu, D. M. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.