Living the Spirit of Ubuntu in 2023

05 January 2023

The commencement of Southern Africa Yearly Meeting in January 2023 marks the beginning of a global process of discussion and discernment among Quakers on the theme of Ubuntu, leading to and beyond the 2024 World Plenary Meeting in South Africa and online.

Ubuntu refers to the deeply held belief, morality and custom that every person is worthy of being recognised, respected and heard, and that we as human beings are all interdependent. It is found as a daily practice in many African societies, although terms and languages differ.

It implies a collective responsibility to ensure that all members of the community have the means of subsistence and learning and participation and further extends to care for the environment, since people are part of the same divinely given creation, that is an interdependent whole.

Outside of Southern Africa it is often associated with Christian anti-apartheid and social justice leader Desmond Tutu, who explained Ubuntu with the words, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” It is, however an ancient wisdom, reasserted in the course of freedom movements from colonialism and apartheid.

Ubuntu forms a central role in Quaker thought in Southern and Central Africa, and is the theme of the opening passage of the region’s book of Faith and Practice, Living Adventurously, which describes the experience of a Quaker Meeting for Worship as:

“An immediate sense of being still in the presence of God. The real experience of the power of intention. And then, a sense of being suspended in the common consciousness of divinity and eternity This is an experience or actualisation of Ubuntu – I am because you are.”

Elsewhere in the book Duduzile Mtshazo describes her first experience of Quakers as being:

“Like a balm to my ruffled nerves and soul. The warm embrace of acceptance, just as I was, was moving and magnetic… ‘Umuntu ugumuntu ngabantu’ – a person is human through the humanity of others. I found my humanity and humanness through those Friends who saw that of God in me and affirmed that.”

Quakers find this spirit affirmed throughout the Bible, in particular in Jesus’ command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. It also resonates with other well-known phrases like “no man is an island” and “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

The recognition that many countries and economies are not guided by principles of Ubuntu, has led many Friends to ask why this is the case, including by engaging with the historical injustices that have contributed to the present situation. Relatedly, Friends are exploring how initiatives leading to, for example, a universal basic income, and abundant sustainable energy, might help reflect Ubuntu more widely.

FWCC will share resources and perspectives on Ubuntu throughout 2023, to help inform discussions at Section Meetings, on World Quaker Day (1 October), and to assist with spiritual preparation for the World Plenary Meeting.