In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, there have been so many eulogies to the life and achievements of a great and inspiring leader and a deeply human being. What stood out to me during the many speeches at his state memorial last week was President Barack Obama asking if, rather than putting Madiba and his life on a pedestal, could we learn from how he lived his life, and could we all aspire to be like him in the way we lived our own lives? Could we all become better persons?
“The value of our shared reward will and must be measured by the joyful peace which will triumph, because the common humanity that bonds both black and white into one human race, will have said to each one of us that we shall all live like the children of paradise.” – Nelson Mandela, Notes to the Future
What was Nelson Mandela’s deeper underlying philosophical belief? Through all of his challenges, how did he manage to remain such a humble human being with such compassion that he could turn a nation away from a bloody civil war and towards building a new future together? How did he always manage to keep on smiling?
What is Ubuntu?
Well, perhaps it was a deeply African value of “Ubuntu” that shaped him. When Nelson Mandela was asked to describe ubuntu, he says that “In the old days, when we were young, a traveler through our country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stopped, the people gave him food and entertained him. This is one aspect of ubuntu but it can have many various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question is: are you going to enable the community around you and to help it to improve? These are the important things in life, and if you can do that, well that is something very important to be appreciated.”
“It [ubuntu] speaks of the essence of being human.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Ubuntu can be defined, according to one South African, Boyd Varty, as “I exist because of you people”, or “people are not people without other people”. It is the sense that our own well-being is deeply tied to the well-being of others.
Ubuntu is in contradiction to our western Cartesian belief that “I exist, therefore I Am’. According to Desmond Tutu, it says, ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share’. Rather than believing in a philosophy of separateness, in ubuntu the fundamental value of relationship is emphasized. It points to a collective consciousness where we get to experience who we are. As Boyd says in the video below, “you are holding a space for me to express who I am”.
Watch this short video of African game-keeper Boyd Varty: What I learned from Nelson Mandela
This philosophy of ubuntu is characterised by values like sharing and belongingness, something many of us very much miss in our western society. In a hyper-materialist and often fragmented culture, we recognise that something is deeply wrong. Similar to a previous blog where I wrote about Charles Eisenstein and his search to create a better world, ubuntu asks us to open our hearts and share the best of who we are. Nelson Mandela was a living beacon of hope to millions around the world. Through his life and his vulnerability he taught us that we can trust and nurture the inherent goodness in each other and build a better life: together.
You can also watch President Barack Obama’s very moving tribute to Nelson Mandela here: