Philosophy and the Multi-Cultural Context of (Post)Apartheid South Africa

Ethical Perspectives 3 (2):76-90 (1996)
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is the Zulu version of a traditional African aphorism . Although with considerable loss of culture-specific meaning, it can be translated as: “A human being is a human being through other human beings.” Still, its meaning can be interpreted in various ways of which I would like to highlight only two, in accordance with the grammar of the central concept ‘Ubuntu’ which denotes both a state of being and one of becoming.Firstly, it can be interpreted as a statement of fact about the human condition, i.e. as a descriptive claim about the social nature of human being and personal identity; even the constitutive relation between alterity and identity. Secondly, it can also be interpreted as a value-judgement, i.e. as a normative appreciation of social difference and human diversity; even as an imperative to expose ourselves to others, to encounter the difference of their humanness, in order to fully become our own. The meaning would then be — to paraphrase a translation of Ramose : To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others in its infinite variety of content and form.CONCLUSION :The challenge of a philosophical understanding of the multi-cultural context of apartheid South Africa has still to be met. To meet this challenge is to try and trace the consequences of what it would mean if — to paraphrase Walzer — our crucial commonality is our particularity. Perhaps it will mean accepting that what we are and are becoming, our identity, escapes any reduction to the categories of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ and eludes a dialectical ‘aufhebung’ of their difference. This may be the case if what we are and are becoming involves the paradox of being and becoming ever more different in the realisation of our self-sameness. Our African aphorism speaks of this paradox and, in so doing, it draws a limit to our philosophical understanding and provides us with a rule of conduct: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu!
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DOI 10.2143/EP.3.2.563038
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