by Herbert Moyo

Pronounced – ùù -bú -ntúúú

Ubuntu is the acceptable normative character of umuntu in isintu. Ubuntu is character, umuntu (human being) and isintu (way of life). It is a word found among the Nguni. It is also found in translations across several other tribal groupings in Africa. Mqhayi found it safe to argue that ubuntu is for the “black people throughout Africa south of the Sahara.”[1] The ubuntu in one community may vary from the ubuntu from the next community in the many villages of Africa. However, if one behaves in a normative manner as per the values and principles that make ubuntu in that community then there is ubuntu in that context. A more focused argument comes from scholars that say ubuntu is an ethic for all bantu people.[2] In other words, African groups that are not part of the bantu may not subscribe to the ethic of ubuntu as they may not even such a word. John Hailey says the ubuntu comes “…from the root word ntu, from Bantu languages in Africa. Ntu meaning human, bantu meaning people, and ubuntu meaning humanity. Since it became popular…”[3] In the study of the philosophy of religion, theology, sociology and anthropology in African humanities the use of the term ubuntu is very popular from studies across AFRUCA. Interestingly scholars find it safe to use the word ubuntu even if they come from a language group that does not have that word, instead of translating they use ubuntu. Ubuntu has emerged as a term that is understood across African scholarship in the humanities. This includes scholars that are affirming the ubuntu ethic[4] and those that are critiquing ubuntu.[5]  I always find the critiques of ubuntu failing to consider that this is the ideal person. It one that society desires to produce as opposed to its anti-thesis. The critiques do not talk about the anti-thesis of ubuntu yet their criticism of ubuntu raises the characteristics of the opposite of the desired. The anti-thesis of ubuntu is ubulwane.

In Zulu and Ndebele languages, ubulwane (animal like) is a person that has the character of an animal, a wild one for that matter. Ubuntu is the opposite of ubulwane. In society you find both, people with ubuntu and those with ubulwane. Nonetheless, there is an ongoing philosophical debate from a variety of academic fields based on the ethic of ubuntu. On google scholar I have counted over 200 articles that talk about ubuntu. The basic is that if one is living their life according to the principles and values of isintu then such has ubuntu.[6] This African ethic of Ubuntu was made popular in the academic world by John Mbiti.[7] Ubuntu is an ethical concept or ideal behaviour that shows adherence to Isintu principles and values which manifests itself through communitarianism, using the humanness of individuals who constitute a community. An individual with ubuntu respects and practices the basics of isintu such as adherence to customs and traditions which revolves around communitarian relationships premised on respect for the self, the living dead, the living and the yet to be born. In a way, ubuntu is everyday normative behaviour by individuals in Isintuism. In fact, Ubuntu is an expression of Isintu through the behaviour of individuals in community to human beings and to other realities[8] such as animals, land, water, mountains and rivers. One who has ubuntu is one who is viewed as well behaved as per the Nguni worldview.

Even though ubuntu centres on the individual, the communitarian nature of the Nguni comes into the picture as the ubuntu cannot be practiced in isolation from other human beings. As already noted, that isintu requires other human beings, hence communitarianism. Ubuntu then becomes the ethic that drives the consciousness of the communally shared life-giving values such as relatedness, respect, communitarianism, hospitality and interdependency. These communitarian ubuntu values are passed on through generations for the well-being of the individual, the wider community and the environment. The definition of ubuntu is an ideal expression of the Isintu worldview.

The ubuntu of an individual becomes visible in relation to others. Michael Battle cites Desmond Tutu saying, ‘…a person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good…’[9] Ubuntu is a moral ethic of interdependence which contributes to social cohesion. The interesting aspect is that in ubuntu even strangers are treated with ubuntu and as such in the development of globalized communities the Nguni have no problem of accommodating others through the ethic of ubuntu. This takes us back to the principle that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Anyone who is individualistic is described as without ubuntu (akanabuntu) instead has ubulwane.


Ubuntu is a moral theory for interdependence and solidarity. It is an ethic based on self-respect and the respect of others in community. The individual finds meaning in serving others and therefore it builds love and care for others. Ubuntu demonstrates the rootedness of an individual in isintu and therefore from those who study the philosophy of religions it can be seen as the praxis of isintu. The individual is very important in community. the self can be meaningful through contributing to the wellbeing of others. The heroes of ubuntu sacrifice their well being for the sake of others, especial for the vulnerable.

[1] Mqhayi, S. E. K. Ityala Lamawele. Loved ale: Loved Ale Press. 1931: 134

[2] Ramose, Mogobe B. “Ubuntu.” In Degrowth, pp. 240-242. Routledge, 2014.

[3] Hailey, John. “Ubuntu: A literature review.” Document. London: Tutu Foundation (2008), pg. 14.

[4] See Letseka, Moeketsi. “In defence of Ubuntu.” Studies in philosophy and education 31, no. 1 (2012): 47-60.

[5] For example, See Matolino, Bernard, and Wenceslaus Kwindingwi. “The end of ubuntu.” South African Journal of Philosophy 32, no. 2 (2013): 197-205. See also

[6] Moyo, Herbert. “The Death of Isintu in Contemporary Technological Era: The Ethics of Sex Robots Among the Ndebele of Matabo.” In African Values, Ethics, and Technology, pp. 123-135. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2021.

[7] Mbiti, J. S. (1971). African traditional religions and philosophy. New York: Doubleday.

[8] I would have said other creation, but the word creation came with the missionaries. The Nguni (Ndebele/Zulu) word is izidalwa. In the Nguni worldview people came from emhlangeni and in talking about that genesis of humans there is no use of the word creation or created.

[9] Battle, Michael. Ubuntu: I in you and you in me. Church Publishing, Inc., 2009.