A Secular Age:

Ubuntu, reconciliation, and the buffered self

posted by Justin Neuman

In his afterword to the essays that comprise Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Charles Taylor draws his remarks to a close with an appeal to friendships grounded in engaged pluralism. In particular, he stresses the urgency of building bonds of understanding across “boundaries [of belief and unbelief] based on a real mutual sense, a powerful sense, of what moves the other person”—friendships based on “understanding [the other person’s] notion of fullness.” This is a Christian project insofar as Christianity is, for Taylor, “all about reconciliation.” In this post I relate Taylor’s idea of reconciliation to those informing claims made by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela during and after the dismantling of apartheid and in South Africa’s interim constitution of 1994. I aim to show how Taylor’s argument, at key moments, draws both rhetorically and analytically on South African examples, and to explore that the ways the cross pressures of this encounter allow us to revisit some of the central concepts of A Secular Age—the “buffered self,” the “nova effect,” “immanence,” and “spiritual hunger”—from a fresh perspective. Like many contributors to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I share the sense that Taylor’s account of Latin Christianity demands greater attention to its global entanglements. Specifically, I am concerned with tracking the processes whereby reconciliation was bound up with the concepts, practices, and vocabulary of ubuntu during South Africa’s transition to non-racial democracy, and how, in turn, ubuntu has come to inflect the social imaginary of Taylor’s Latin Christianity.

Ubuntu, the Zulu term for an ethic of interdependence, which informs social structures and ethical practices throughout southern Africa, has been called the motivating principle, or zeitgeist, of communitarian village life for Bantu-speaking peoples, for whom muntu, or mutu, is a common word for person. The connotations of ubuntu are commonly expressed by invoking a Zulu maxim in which its cognates predominate: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” or, to use the proverb of Tutu’s Xhosa heritage, “ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu,” (“a person is a person through other persons”). Ubuntu’s untranslatability is central to both theoretical and popular articulations: nearly all writing on the subject takes this claim as axiomatic, and nearly all such texts (my own included) cite the transliterated Zulu maxim. Untranslatability asserts cultural difference; the lack of an equivalent concept in European languages and cultures, where the concepts of individuality are more deeply sedimented, is thus marshaled as evidence of otherness. In the 1960s and ‘70s, ubuntu was claimed by négritude thinkers, like Senegalese president Léopold Senghor and anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, as the unique cultural inheritance of Black Africa. The term anchored both the norms of an idealized precolonial condition and rehabilitated cultural forms that had been marginalized by colonial domination. If for Senghor, Biko, and others fighting against colonialism and apartheid, ubuntu symbolized opposition to Western practices of domination and served as their dialectical antithesis, its status as a guiding principle of the new South Africa and its strategic use by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu catapulted ubuntu into national and global circulation as a rival normative framework to Western ideas about sovereignty, utility, and individual autonomy. At the same time, ubuntu was called upon to translate these very norms—and the attendant discourses of human rights and civil society—into African vernaculars. Ubuntu can thus be seen as a threshold, or site of intensity, in global networks of cultural exchange.

The clearest example of the way ubuntu served as a site of mediation can be found in the “National Unity and Reconciliation” chapter of South Africa’s 1994 Interim Constitution (the section cited as the mandate for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which dominated media and politics in South Africa from 1996 to 1998). Proleptically affirming the possibility of reconciliation on the basis of a community yet to come, the constitution asserts that apartheid’s “gross violations of human rights . . . can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.”  In its very enunciation, the term ubuntu begins the process of reparation that it both embodies and desires, in this case by making the argument, both pragmatically and philosophically, for moral and linguistic reeducation. By asserting the importance of an untranslated Zulu word, the interim constitution makes good on a principle that would be formalized in Article 6.2 of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution: “Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.”

Part of my point, however, is that ubuntu can be meaningfully described as “indigenous” to southern Africa only in a historical sense relating to its origins. Indeed, YouTube videos featuring Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu pitch ubuntu as a platform for public claim-making that rejects subject-centered models of citizenship and agency. While Jimmy Klausen, in his recent post on the subject of indigenous religions, uses the category of indigeneity to shed light on Taylor’s “politics of recognition,” the assumptions about cultural purity that freight indigeneity reflect neither the global iterations of ubuntu as a product in the global marketplace of ideas nor its history of mediating colonial and missionary encounters.  Instead, various claims to ubuntu’s indigenousness—its status as an “indigenous African philosophy,” as it has been described both by members of the Black Consciousness movement and by academic anthropologists—is an obvious part of its cultural currency. It would be more accurate to read the discourse of ubuntu as a part of the phenomenon of religious pluralization that Taylor calls the “nova effect,” in which the “malaise of modernity” and a deep history of religious improvisation combine to power our “spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane.” This image helps to make sense of the rampant commercialization of ubuntu showcased by phenomena as diverse as the Ubuntu computer programming language, the 2009 “Ubuntu Diplomacy” initiative of the U.S. Department of State, and the Cape Town “Ubuntu Festival.” Much of this is merely multiculturalist kitsch, and indeed it is on the very basis of ubuntu’s status as “an African product” that it is marketed as a valuable cultural resource and has become a buzzword in corporate management discourse. There, ubuntu management symbolizes leveraging less hierarchical business models to attain greater employee satisfaction and corporate profit in an explicit bid to bridge global capitalism and local folkways.

In No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu, the most systematic and cogent advocate of ubuntu in recent decades, puts it this way:

[Ubuntu] speaks to the very essence of being human [. . .] it is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’  We belong to a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’  It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share [. . .] Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the summum bonum—the greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good, is to be avoided like the plague.

If for Taylor, Christianity is all about reconciliation, for Tutu, Christianity is all about ubuntu. As Michael Battle, a scholar of what he calls Tutu’s “ubuntu theology,” argues, ubuntu inflects Tutu’s deepest sense of Christianity, affecting his understanding of agape, the imago dei, and the church as a community. Several caveats are in order: I am bracketing questions about whether descriptions of ubuntu should be taken as empirical claims about actually existing social norms or are, rather, better seen as utopian longings. Furthermore, the heterogeneity of sub-Saharan Africa—not to mention the differences between precolonial village life and, for instance, life in the slums of Soweto—renders suspect any claims about a singular African culture. I am also not, for the purposes of this discussion, concerned with whether ubuntu’s communalism underwrites the suppression of dissent, though Tutu’s claim that anything detrimental to social harmony should be “avoided like the plague” has a chilling tone.

Instead, I want to linger on the ways that ubuntu, in all of its guises, challenges the basic assumptions about selfhood that subtend Taylor’s work, from Sources of the Self through A Secular Age, while its contemporary mediation and global circulation—as well as its status as a translation zone between Christian missionaries and African converts—confound attempts to see ubuntu as wholly other to Latin Christianity. The evidence of European influences are particularly conspicuous: from the centrality of Christianity to the echo of Kant’s categorical imperative, Tutu’s rhetoric seamlessly integrates the Christian imagery of brotherhood and the dignity shared by all those made in God’s image with ubuntu’s communalism. Indeed, at least since Christian missionaries from Anglican denominations began evangelical work among Zulu and Xhosa communities in the early nineteenth century, both missionaries and converts have come to see ubuntu as the particular language through which the Gospel would most successfully reach its target audience.

For Taylor, the modern self begins with the inward gaze of Cartesian reason; it is no accident that Tutu stages ubuntu as an explicit critique of the Enlightenment in his deft juxtaposition of ubuntu with Cartesian subjectivity, Humean utility, and Smith’s market economics. Developed as an ideology that locates human flourishing in the enrichment of connections between people, ubuntu offers an ontological antidote to apartheid’s logic of separation. As a political theology, ubuntu radicalizes familiar Christian injunctions toward forgiveness, hospitality, reconciliation, and social justice with the aim of drastically reconfiguring the political and cultural landscape of South Africa and, ultimately, the world. In Taylor’s terms, ubuntu insists that we are not buffered selves; the remediation of ubuntu in South African jurisprudence and in its global circulation suggests a normative indictment of firm boundaries between self and other.

It would be easy—and profoundly misleading—to argue that people who inhabit communities governed by a sense of the self as porous, interconnected, and vulnerable to the world are “outside” Taylor’s immanent frame and the history he expertly tells. Ubuntu articulates a strong sense of immanence that manifests itself in its very lexicon: there is a profound horizontality—and a striking absence of vertical appeals to transcendence and the higher power of divinity—in the repetition of cognates for “person” in the proverbs umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu and ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu. In his discussion of the mundane, Simon During questions Taylor’s assertion that spiritual hunger is integral to human nature; in a different way, the notions of fullness implicit in ubuntu allow us to see the verticality of Taylor’s argument as distinctly contingent; from another angle, ubuntu’s concept of personhood suggests that the buffered self is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of immanence. At the same time, ubuntu is not immanent in a materialist sense: the network of personhood implicit in ubuntu includes ancestors and spiritual energies, for which ancestors serve as mediators. Ubuntu operates in an enchanted world—one sees this vividly in the phantasmagoric realism of Nigerian-British novelist Ben Okri’s Famished Road trilogy, in which the spirit world is coterminous with the megacity of Lagos—but not necessarily in one governed by a transcendent/immanent dialectic.

What does Taylor mean when he claims, apropos of Christianity, “It’s all about reconciliation”?  While rhetorically straightforward, Taylor’s choice of terms invokes, only to complicate, common theological contexts in which the term implies a specific predicate: reconciliation is transacted between individuals and God (or the Church). The term bears witness to this history etymologically: “reconciliation, from reconsiliaciun, the Anglo-Norman term for reunion with the Church” (OED). In Taylor’s hands, reconciliation is overdetermined by its counterintuitive roles as at once a properly Christian concept internal to Christian self-fashioning and the threshold upon which Christianity opens toward difference as such. There is something similar going on with ubuntu, which is at once uniquely African and universally human. Taylor’s closing turns of phrase are either arrestingly direct or oddly multilayered, particularly given the divergence between his normative embrace of reconciliation as a project and the descriptive account of the reformist energies within Christianity that he elaborates in A Secular Age. As Taylor tells it there, reform and reconciliation are by no means parallel trajectories.

Taylor’s sympathies with Tutu’s vision of Christianity are especially apparent in his references to South African theology and politics at two important moments in A Secular Age. Taylor cites the dismantling of apartheid as an example of the kind of conflicts and ethical dilemmas facing the world today, and of their possible transcendence. For Taylor, apartheid is not an ethical dilemma; rather, the dilemma inheres in the enacting of solutions to apartheid’s obvious injustice in which the difficulty of adjudicating victimhood, communicative justice, reparation, and a plurality of competing goods exposes the inadequacy of modern ethical theory’s fetish for norm and rule. On the one hand, the spectacular failure of neoliberal globalization to translate economic growth into worldwide peace and harmony suggests that “we need a stronger ethic, a firmer identification with the common good,” and on the other, Taylor is convinced that legal and ethical codes can never provide for the ethical energy necessary to sustain flourishing societies. Instead, Taylor looks to recent cases of transitional justice, like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as examples of the way reconciliatory frameworks can shatter the zero-sum nature of award and judgment by enabling a “vertical” shift to ethical planes that permit “a win-win move.” Taylor writes:

The basic idea behind this kind of procedure was to get the ex-victims to accept that they could have a maximum of one kind of closure (the truth about what happened) at the cost of renouncing a lot that they could quite legitimately claim of another kind: punishment of the perpetrators, an eye for an eye. The aim was to find an ‘award’ which allowed also for a reconciliation, and therefore living together on a new footing.

While very different sets of practical and discursive demands come to bear on the term reconciliation when it is uttered by Desmond Tutu and Charles Taylor, it is no surprise that one can hear echoes of Mandela and Tutu in Taylor’s “It’s all about reconciliation.” Tracking the relationship between ubuntu and Christian concepts of reconciliation and forgiveness is a potent reminder of how intertwined Christianity is with geographies, histories, and cultures distant from Taylor’s focal point, and it is with this goal in mind that I take inspiration from the essays in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age by Nilüfer Göle, José Casanova, and Saba Mahmood, who each seek to pluralize and decenter Taylor’s account of Latin Christianity in the North Atlantic world. It is a testament to the strength of Taylor’s work that his project fosters a framework for comparative analysis despite his focus on the internal history of Latin Christianity. By examining the way that ubuntu has altered—through theology, corporate management culture, ethical theory, and state politics—what Taylor might call the “South African social imaginary,” we begin to see intimations that the self is not as buffered as Taylor might take it to be.

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One Response to “Ubuntu, reconciliation, and the buffered self”

  1. avatar Jeanne-Marie Jackson says:

    Out of curiosity, have you come across the alternate translation of, “A human being is a human being through (the otherness of) other human beings” that a few South African scholars have suggested? I will cop to not having studied Zulu or Xhosa, but I find the difference provocative and relevant for any point about ubuntu’s communitarian ideals. There is an interesting article on it in, of all places, the ‘Handbook of Restorative Justice’ that they use at many law schools.

    I also wonder, without having read the Taylor anthology, if we need to reach as far as South Africa to poke some holes in the buffered subject of Latinate Christianity. Ricoeur, for example, traces the formation of the Christian self through others in the very grammatical structure of the language we use to articulate it. It sounds eerily like ubuntu as you describe it, but a whole lot more complex than the popularized form that is all I have access to (and which you detail very interestingly).

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