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I Am Because We Are, Ubuntu & Inclusion


One thing, you will recognise, is how these articles and thoughts on paper, always emerge out of conversations and discussions that make you think from a different perspective. This time, this article was developed from previous conversations on the EquALLIES Ambassador Programme we are developing and work on inclusion and diversity. As part of that, we of course were thinking along the lines of how this would fit in with our work on engaging, educating and empowering oneself before you can empower others.

The pandemic has made us all reflect on life, family, friends, work and other aspects of our lives. Things that used to be important no longer hold the same pertinence, social relationships and connections and not necessarily individual pursuits have become central to our wellbeing, well I hope so anyway.

As an African, Zimbabwean and Shona woman, embedded within me and at the periphery of my mind, though not articulated are my African values of humanness that underpin African Philosophy. I may veer off sometimes, but African philosophy of ubuntu/ unhu is important to me and in my work. Ubuntu/unhu is not a fad or trendy approach to how we live, it is a philosophy that is demonstrated in everyday living that I grew up being taught and reminded, every day of my life.

What is ubuntu/unhu?

The notion of individualism that begins with the self is central to western thought and way of life. Of course that does not preclude the importance of social relationships and their importance in people’s lives. We also recognise, as individuals, we are always growing and becoming; we are not a finished product, Hence, when we discuss inclusive leadership and being an inclusive organisation, we recognise that the process is ongoing and more importantly, individuals change and grow, therefore, approaches may need to change and evolve with the same agility, as the company changes and people grow.

There are extensive writings on Ubuntu with discussions and debates on what it means and some of the issues with the scholarship. I am not going to go into the academic debates on its use, abuse and cultural appropriation. But I will summarise its tenets and reflect on how this notion provides a different framework to how we approach diversity and inclusion in the communities, workplaces and institutions.

One of the most cited scholars on this concept is Mbiti (1969/1970) who wrote extensively on African philosophy, Ubuntu or Unhu in Shona, as part of African philosophy. Ubuntu is a holistic approach that highlights the importance of the communal and our place in the universe. I deliberately use the term , communal to differentiate it from community, a concept often used in different ways, and in some places has lost its meaning. Mbiti (1970:80) put it succinctly by noting that;

Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual.”

In African cultures, the communal comes first and the individual understands their role and relationships to the communal. It is about the emotional, spiritual, psychological, biological connections we have to others. Hence, it is not only about personhood, but how we have an interdependent relationship to each other and how our being is interconnected to others.

These key elements of Ubuntu ( taken from LeRoux, 2000, pg 3) above, are about valuing others, dignity and respect. This is important when we start thinking about issues of diversity and inclusion.

Ubuntu/ Unhu is in essence ‘I am because we are’

I will acknowledge that as a result of colonialism, coloniality, imperialism and capitalism, the sense of ubuntu/unhu among different cultures and social groups is no longer as it should be. However, it is still worthwhile to examine how we can draw from its principles to frame our work and approaches to diversity and inclusion.

Ubuntu: Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace

There are many approaches to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) that draw from western ideas and approaches. In our work at EquAllies, we continue to highlight that our approach to inclusion is focused both on the individual, their social connections, the organisations and all related practises, processes that enable the organisation to function. EDI is an area that has increased and itself become more diverse, and those involved in the industry recognise the impact of their work and the challenges of addressing inequalities within the workplace. However, we also recognise that changes are slow in some places, and we do not need to go far to see the challenges certain groups of people are still facing. A reflection of other ways of being enables us to discuss, debate and apply different approaches to problem solving.

The key question then becomes, how does ubuntu as a framework contribute to EDI within diverse organisations?

A starting point is recognition that ubuntu/ unhu is not necessarily about people with a shared culture, languages or beliefs. One of the most challenging arguments to make with corporate managers in some places is why having diversity and working on inclusion is important. It makes me uncomfortable that my contributions, expertise and knowledge have to be packaged in ways that speak to ideas of productivity, and ultimately business performance. I have seen some EDI companies/ consultants even allude to issues of business reputation and better connection with customers as major reasons for prioritising EDI in the workplace. This becomes difficult when the same organisations think that they are doing well and do not see the benefit of creating an inclusive environment.

Excellent, as this may be, drawing from the principles of ubuntu, and as an ethnic minority who has been treated differently based on my race/ethnicity/ gender and other intersecting categories, I suggest that the starting point, should be acknowledging our humanness and connections to each other. Ubuntu/ unhu removes the notion of those who are ‘normal’ or those who are ‘different’ as human dignity and humanness trumps everything else, meaning that we all deserve respect, sensitivity, regard and care. And if anyone is struggling, then their struggles are my struggles and I have a responsibility to them and the group. It is the consideration of others’ needs that allows us to think about how we behave and create an environment that is conducive for all to flourish. Difference and diversity has value, but its value does not come from what I can add to the group, but rather our interdependence and a recognition of how ‘ I am because we are’.

What ubuntu does is to change the premise of our work and approaches to EDI,i.e. from the self and attributes to ideas about being, humanness, our interdependence and connections, regardless of race, gender, disability, neurodiversity etc…. Those that have power, influence and resources then use their power and their influence to not be gatekeepers, but to benefit all and support those who may be struggling. I also believe that this then stops us thinking that we are successful, because we were motivated, intelligent or driven - innate characteristics that others do not have. This is discussion for another day.

From the points stated, some may argue that ubuntu is not adding anything that we do not know or do already. I disagree, as experience and talking to others, who have experienced discrimination, exclusions and racisms has shown me that our differences often underpin how other interact with us and at work, define our capabilities and abilities. Hence, those who are different or who do not conform to our standards of normality have to justify why they deserve the jobs or the promotion and why their views and voices are just as important in shaping the workplace.

So, if the communal comes before the individual, then do the needs of the individual not matter? Where are the boundaries between self and other, the individual and communal?

The individual and their needs are not lost or undermined, rather the well being of the individual is enhanced by the communal and they have opportunities to flourish and do well. It is not an either or, but both, together working for a common good. EDI work then becomes participatory with everyone being heard and having opportunities to make changes and shape policies and processes.

Ubuntu/unhu is an approach that allows us to think differently about diversity and inclusion. What we are highlighting is the importance of understanding our interdependence and connectedness that allows us to work together, support each other and above all, start centralising the welfare of others which challenges us to get out of our comfort zones and put other people’s needs first, a difficult task even for the best of us.

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