Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Ubuntu, foreign policy and radical uncertainty in South Africa and the world

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Ubuntu, foreign policy and radical uncertainty in South Africa and the world

Mzukisi Qobo

Nceku Nyathi

20 Sep 2017

6min min read
  • Diplomacy
  • International relations

How should states navigate through an increasingly fragmented world? Mzukisi Qobo and Nceku Nyathi unpack the meaning of Ubuntu and advocate for its place in policy and international relations. 


n recent times, there have been many events that suggest fluidity in the global system. These include the rise of transactional forms of leadership as expressed in Presidents Donald Trump in the United States and Jacob Zuma in South Africa, the return of authoritarianism in Turkey, the emergence of ultra-leftist demagoguery in Venezuela and the gathering clouds of right-wing populist nationalism in Europe. Transactional leadership is marked by use of the levers of state power to advance patronage. 

At the systemic level, the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, the rise of global terrorism and the weakening of some of the institutional pillars of multilateralism such as the World Trade Organisation are some of the tell-tale signs of a world that is increasingly at risk. In these turbulent times, a new model of thinking about global governance and economic policies is required. The paradigm of Ubuntu could help provide some of the answers we urgently need. 

Can the notion of Ubuntu be used to frame public policy and international relations? We contend that Ubuntu should be taken seriously as a perspective through which to navigate solutions to the multiple crises that the world is currently going through. It must be said, though, that Ubuntu is an overly used concept that at times has been bastardised to justify all and sundry. At times its usage has been within a conservative setting, not to offer transformative possibilities but to affirm a status quo. At other times, it has been applied in ways that essentialise African people as belonging to certain fixed social and cultural categories, almost as another sub-human species. 

Freed from the parochial cultural strictures, Ubuntu can be a powerful paradigm for both taming the excesses of globalisation – in particular asymmetries of power and inequities – and bringing to life transformative possibilities. While we focus, in the main, on the domestic domains of public policy and articulation of South Africa’s foreign policy, we also examine ways in which Ubuntu, conceptually, offers better and more exciting ways of thinking about global power configurations, and how these power structures can be altered. Take, for example, South Africa’s foreign policy. 

South Africa is going through challenges that in part reflect the vicissitudes of the global economic system, especially as it convalesces from the global financial crisis, and in part the writhing from self-inflicted institutional crisis. Further, South Africa’s economy faces radical uncertainty in the face of calls for ill-defined radical economic transformation and the simmering social tensions as a result of failure to deal decisively with the social legacy of apartheid, persisting inequalities, poor education system, weak public health infrastructure and growing corruption. 

Structural weaknesses in the economy are glaring, and marked by negative growth, recession conditions and unacceptably high levels of unemployment. Inequalities threaten the country’s social stability, and raise a spectre of an uncertain future. Business confidence is low, with both the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy contracting. Violent crimes, especially against women, seem to be on the rise. It would seem that there is deep moral decay that cuts through the ruling political elite and society. A paradigm of Ubuntu is more urgent for moral renewal domestically, and to build a world that is more stable, characterised by interdependence, and takes fairness and equity seriously.

Ubuntu conceptualised

The conception of Ubuntu is best captured by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Wathiong’o’s notion of ‘a world in a grain of sand’. It can also be regarded from the perspective of Afrocentricity.  

We define Ubuntu in both its particularistic (grain of sand) sense and universalistic frame at once. Wathiong’o observes that the particular and the universal should not be juxtaposed mechanistically, and that human cultures do not evolve in parallel tracks, but co-mingle. It is thus possible to free Ubuntu from particularistic strictures without negating the reality of its strong identification with Africans. 

In his view:

 "The universal is contained in the particular just as the particular is contained in the universal. We are all human beings but the fact of our being human does not manifest itself in its abstraction but in the particularity of real living human beings of different climes and races." 

Our view of Ubuntu places a premium on the collective, while at the same time acknowledging what the Jewish Rabbi and scholar Jonathan Sacks calls the dignity of difference.  

We caution against the essentialising view of Ubuntu, and stress that notions of justice, fairness, equity and solidarity, often associated with Ubuntu, are not exclusively African. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that in Africa there are primordial cultural practices that are at variance with modernity’s impulse for liberty, such as the poor treatment of women and property relations under cultural law. In short, not everything that goes by the name of Ubuntu should be assumed, uncritically, as being progressive socially and politically. Can South Africa externalise the notion of Ubuntu through its foreign policy?

Foreign policy

Foreign policies are, to a considerable extent, an extension of domestic values and policies. At the level of rhetoric, South Africa articulates a foreign policy that stresses the values of Ubuntu. Its foreign policy posture underscores human rights, peace building, equality and justice in the international order. In the foreign policy white paper of 2011 (named 'Diplomacy of Ubuntu') there is a strong emphasis on pursuing "common humanity, collaboration, cooperation and building partnership over conflict". 

In our view, this rhetoric is not very helpful in the absence of clear expression of such values in how government does its work, how we approach the practice of foreign policy and how we deal with foreign nationals. There is thus weak alignment between rhetoric and diplomatic behaviour; there is also a chasm between foreign policy and domestic policy – both in normative and socio-economic terms. It is hardly evident that our domestic economic policy thinking, or development strategies, are given concrete expression in our foreign policy conduct.

"The South African government used the notion of Ubuntu as a catchphrase rather than a prism through which to approach policy or to introduce innovative ways of thinking about international relations in a world fraught with tensions and uncertainty."

In the early phases of democracy, there was clearly a normative consistency between the domestic political framework, expressed in the liberal constitutional arrangement, and South Africa’s idealistic objectives in the global system. South Africa made the promotion of multilateralism the principal object of its foreign policy. At the moment of its democratic transition, South Africa gained an enormous amount of goodwill from the international community. This is no longer the case.  

South Africa’s foreign policy is going adrift, pretty much like the world on a vortex of crises. What has been lacking so far, not just in the South African government, but also in the current global order, is a clear set of compelling ideas that come from the developing South regarding the character of global governance, leadership, and the nature of institutions that should anchor it – and that should reinforce humanistic values of fairness, justice and equity. 

In the 2011 'Diplomacy of Ubuntu' white paper, the South African government used the notion of Ubuntu as a catchphrase rather than a prism through which to approach policy or to introduce innovative ways of thinking about international relations in a world fraught with tensions and uncertainty. There is no evidence that South Africa’s foreign policy possesses the capacity to respond flexibly to global developments. 

Renewal of leadership and institutions

There are signs that under President Zuma’s administration, the philosophy of Ubuntu has become more of a cloak than a serious commitment. The ethics of public policy are weak, and are increasingly characterised by patronage and crony-capitalism. These weaknesses also manifest in the country’s foreign policy which over time has grown devoid of ideas and normative commitment. 

Aside from voting dubiously on human rights issues at the United Nations Human Rights Committee, one other marker of the declining quality of South Africa’s foreign policy under Zuma in recent times was with respect to the Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir’s attendance at the African Union Summit in South Africa in June 2015. As a signatory of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the South African government was obligated to arrest al-Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Sudan between 2003 and 2005. The government deliberately failed to uphold its constitutional obligations, thereby earning the ire of the courts.

Globally, it is important that leaders strive to create a fair, equitable, humane and just global system, and this is consistent with the philosophy of Ubuntu. While the moral decay deepens within the South African state, the social fabric coming asunder, and economic burdens weighing heavily on the black majority, Ubuntu remains very relevant and necessary as a basis for a dialogue on how to explore avenues for transformative change. This may mean renewal of both domestic and global institutions to better reflect the values associated with Ubuntu, and to facilitate a dialogue about the future of global governance. 

Ubuntu is a value that can best be secured through multilateralist processes that are less anchored on hierarchies of power, as was the case in the past seven decades of their existence, and more on recognition of the importance of multi-polarity, the value of solidarity, and the imperative of interdependence. Ubuntu can be championed as a distinct paradigm that makes a contribution in renewing a global system that confronts radical uncertainty. 

Read the longer paper on which this analysis is based here

(Main image of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/Getty)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.