The capability for ubuntu: connecting african and anglo-american conceptions of being

Martinez-Vargas, Carmen; Mathebula, Mikateko (2019). 'The capability for Ubuntu: connecting African and Anglo-American conceptions of being' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


The capabilities approach is today an important framework; however, this status does not limit its exposure to alternative reformulations. For instance, Hoffman and Metz (2017) expanded the capabilities approach by connecting it with an African cosmovision, that of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Nguni[1] word that is often translated as ‘humanness to others’ (Gianan, 2010) and it means ‘I am only because we are, and since we are, I am’ (du Toit, 2004: 33), or ‘a person is a person through other persons’ (Shutte, 1993: 46). It entails necessarily reciprocal interactions between individuals, which render us human (Tutu, 1999). Ubuntu implies that each person exists because others do, and that interaction between people necessarily involves mutuality and cooperation, to the extent that others’ lives are the individual’s life (Migheli, 2017). Based on Ubuntu, the idea and the sense of community are extremely strong: each individual can exist only within a community and hence the survival of the one’s community is her/his survival (Migheli, 2017). Ubuntu suggests that members of a community adopt ‘we’-thinking instead of ‘I’-thinking; to the extent that the individual and the community are inextricably linked and there is no clear separation between the two (Migheli, 2016). While in the common sense of an individualistic approach the idea of community represents something exterior to each of its members (i.e. in a sense, a super-structure from the individual’s point of view), from an Ubuntu perspective, one’s community is both interior and exterior to each member (Migheli, 2017). While an individualistic person may continue existing outside any community (i.e. an individual can be self-sufficient, although this is an extreme case), this possibility does not exist within the Ubuntu world (Migheli, 2017).

Hoffman and Metz (2017) discuss these ontological elements and assumptions of Ubuntu within the capabilities approach, introducing it as a way to create a conversation between African and Anglo-American intellectual traditions. Drawing from their arguments, this paper extends this conversation by arguing that Ubuntu is not only a cosmovision—and an African ontological position—that can be used to enrich our understanding of the capabilities approach as a whole, but also by exploring its conceptualisation as a human capability. Furthermore, the paper discusses the implications of conceptualising Ubuntu as a locally embedded capability that is nonetheless connected to Western/universal capabilities such as those proposed in Nussbaum’s list of central human capabilities (Nussabum, 2012). By doing so, the paper not only expands current debates that link different traditions of thought but also theorises the connections between local and universal capabilities, drawing from empirical data to justify our arguments against ‘universalising’ capabilities like Ubuntu.

The paper draws on two sets of qualitative data from two different projects situated in the South African higher education space. The first is a case study with a group of twelve undergraduate students at one South African university, where interviews, participant observation and participants’ diaries were used as methods for data collection. Although the case study focused on general valued capabilities for this group of students, the data used in this paper centres on their understanding and valuing of Ubuntu and how— if this is indeed the case—they conceptualise Ubuntu regarding their everyday lives and their context. The second data set from which we draw are life story interviews carried out annually with 65 students across five universities in South Africa over a period of three years. Here, we focus on the methodological process of identifying Ubuntu as a capability from the data, which we gathered for the purpose of exploring inclusive higher education learning outcomes for youth who come from rural areas and townships in South Africa.

Based on both sets of data, we argue that Ubuntu is a way for this group of mostly black, low-income students to understand their existence and their relations to others—as a particular ontological perspective (which corroborates the argument put forward by Hoffman and Mertz, 2017). We also argue that Ubuntu is a capability that is central to the students’ wellbeing, and that it informs their aspirations for and conceptions of a good life. We highlighted two issues in our summative discussions. First, the evidence that Ubuntu is a way of being and doing that has great value to the students, although various conversion factors often impede it. Second, the idea that although it is valued on its own, Ubuntu is also linked to other capabilities that are not rooted in community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2006), such as Affiliation from Nussbaum’s central human capabilities (2012).

Therefore, the paper demonstrates how we might examine the connection between universal capabilities that are informed by Western thought, and context-specific capabilities that are informed by others, in this case, African social philosophies. Examining this connection allows us to understand but also challenge the way in which capabilities can be detached from their contexts, thus jeopardising the grassroots orientation of the capabilities approach envisioned by Sen (Sen, 1999). We hope to demonstrate how scholars might acknowledge the relationship or connection between confined (within the higher education space) contextual (southern/African) capabilities (Ubuntu) and other arguably universal capabilities (e.g. Affiliation) without necessarily promoting their universalism. We think this is important because the potential of the capabilities approach as a democratic framework is compromised when scholars limit their understanding of valued ways of being to individualist and/or Eurocentric views alone.

[1] A group of Bantu languages including Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele spoken in southern Africa by the Nguni people.

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