Ubuntu Research Project (Funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation)

Professor James Ogude, Professor Julian Muller, Dr Wilhelm van Deventer, Professor Christof Heyns and Professor Maxi Schoeman


This project, titled “The meaning and value of Ubuntu in human and social development in Africa”, is an inter-faculty research project, involving departments and researchers from the Faculties of Humanities, Law and Theology. Ubuntu is the African idea of personhood: persons depend on other persons to be. This is summarized in the expression: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, that is, a person is a person through persons.

The project seeks to insert the concept of Ubuntu within the broad intellectual debate of self and community, to demonstrate its intellectual and philosophical value and theoretical grounding in known practices emanating from the African continent, and indeed how it works to unsettle some of our received notions of the self. The project looks at Ubuntu from an array of viewpoints, illustrated by its applicability in different contexts and facets explored in the four research clusters.

The project is comprised of four clusters.

The first cluster is headed by Professor James Ogude, and is focused on gaining an understanding of the multiple interpretations of the Ubuntu concept. This cluster looks into the reconciliation of the values of Ubuntu, which conceives the individual as a nodal point of larger communal networks, with the notions of the individual as a free and intentional agent. The value of this cluster resides in the possibilities it offers to see Ubuntu as a bridge to the other cultural streams rather than an insular and separatist ideology which shuts off other philosophical streams.

The second cluster is headed by Professor Julian Muller and Dr Wilhelm van Deventer, and its research focus is on the 2007 Kenyan post-election violence, as well as the Zimbabwean inter-ethnic violence in the 1980’s.

Cluster three is led by Professor Christof Heyns. This Cluster is tasked to compile a classification of violations of the right to life, and to collate relevant reports from across Africa.

Cluster four is headed by Professor Maxi Schoeman, and is focused on highlighting the links between Ubuntu, the responsibility to protect, and social cohesion. 

Events and Outcomes

The Ubuntu project was officially launched in 2014. Cluster one held a major colloquium from 23-25 June 2014 at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, on the University of Pretoria main campus. It was well attended by local and international scholars of African philosophy and Ubuntu, who engaged in debate on this concept.

Out of this workshop, a proposal for an edited book was developed, and accepted by Indiana University Press. In 2016, Professor Ogude submitted a collection of edited chapters to the publishers for the book titled Ubuntu: Reconstitution of Community.

Cluster two started its exploration of the topic by hosting two workshops in Pretoria that were used to guide the cluster members in the planning of their projects. The year 2014 was used to conduct both a literature review and empirical research in the form of qualitative interviews. Under this cluster, Prof Ogude travelled to Kenya in August of this year to identify relevant literature and documentaries on the 2007 Kenyan post-election violence. Professor Ogude discovered a significant body of literature and resource material focussing on the narratives of the displaced. The literature provided a necessary entry point into the research on the narratives of affected communities and what ethical values underpin their search for healing and restoration. Six years after the violence took place, Professor Ogude was able to identify sites and locations of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). Of significance was the tentative discovery of the role the church and faith communities continue to play in mediating the relationships between displaced communities, and the state actors and in supporting the displaced in a variety of ways. In Bulawayo, two PhD researchers undertook inquiry into the Zimbabwean component of this cluster.

Cluster three in 2014 and 2015 conducted research on extractive industries and the protection of the right to life. Two PhD researchers from the University of Pretoria were recruited to assist with the creation of a template surveying commissions of inquiry implementing the right to life across Africa over the last twenty years. Thandabantu Nhlapo, a leading expert on African customary law at the University of Cape Town, conducted research under this cluster on the historical and modern interpretations of accountability across the African continent.

On 23 and 25 September 2015, under Cluster four, Professor Schoeman addressed two audiences on normative and ethical issues related to the relationship between Ubuntu and government policies. These panel discussions, taking place in Helsinki, Finland and Uppsala, Sweden respectively, were arranged as part of various events celebrating and commemorating South Africa’s twenty years of democracy. South Africa’s ambassadors to Finland and Sweden attended the events.

From the 2014 colloquium held by Cluster one, a deep literature review was initiated into the idea of ‘personhood’ in an attempt to expand its meaning and provide a nuanced understanding that would draw connections between African and Christian world views, and indeed other related or competing ideas of personhood. In February 2015 a workshop was held that shared the results of this literature review.

Also in 2015, cluster two confirmed with a leading peer-reviewed journal, Verbum et Ecclesia, its desire to publish a special Ubuntu-edition of their journal based on this clusters research outputs. The resulting issue was guest edited by Professor Muller, and the print edition was released in early 2016. The full electronic edition can be found online here.

On 13 May 2016 Cluster one, under the leadership of Prof Ogude, hosted an Ubuntu seminar and public lecture by Dr Niels Weidtmann entitled ‘Ubuntu and the Notion of Vital Force’. This was well attended by cluster leaders and several Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship associates.

A significant highlight was the production of a play on the broad theme of Ubuntu, titled ‘Mama Mudu’s Children’, which was completed by playwright and theatre practitioner Dr Masitha Hoeane, who also directed and produced the play with the assistance of Mr Mxolisi Duda of the University of Pretoria Arts. The play was vetted and re-drafted after critique from award winning playwright and leading scholar in African Drama and Cinema, Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson from the University of the Witwatersrand. The play will travel Gauteng in 2017.

In Cluster three, significant field trips to Kenya to study the Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence and to the Khayelitsha Commission on Policing in South Africa were made to establish commissions of inquiry on the protection of the right to life. The work was undertaken by Professor Heyns, assisted by Meetali Jein and Yvonne Oyieke. In February 2016 an expert meeting on the use of force by private security, and this signified a broadening of the cluster focus on extractive industries and protection of life.

In Cluster four, Professor Olonisakin and Professor Alden travelled to the African Union in Addis Ababa as part of Ubuntu diplomacy and social cohesion on the continent.

At the end of 2016, Professor Ogude hosted a workshop in Nairobi, entitled ‘Ubuntu and the Everyday’. A colloquium was held from 22-23 March 2017 as follow up to this workshop.

In 2018, two books were published based on the research conducted between 2014 and 2017. The first book, Ubuntu and Personhood, was edited by Professor James Ogude and examined the link between the concept of Ubuntu, the individual self and community, and especially look at how the community informed the identity of the self. The second book, Unfolding Narratives of Ubuntu in Southern Africa, illustrates the power of fictionalised representation in reporting research conducted on Ubuntu in Southern Africa. This book was edited by Professor Julian Muller, Dr John Eliastam and Sheila Trahar. In 2019, a third book was published: Ubuntu and the Everyday, edited by Professor James Ogude and Unifier Dyer. The book is a collection of essays that seeks to understand the concept of Ubuntu within the context of the everyday practices of society. The project expects two further publications in 2019: Ubuntu and the Reconstitution of Community, edited by Professor James Ogude and published by Indiana University Press; and Domestic Commissions of Inquiry in Africa as Accountability Mechanisms: Securing the Right to Life in Africa, which will be published by Pretoria University Law Press.

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