{What follows is a meditation on the deeper meaning of this proverb, which I wrote as an explanation for some work that a friend of mine is currently doing on the intersection between ubuntu and human rights.}

This is the phrase which is so often uttered as an expression of ubuntu – I have seen it scrawled on walls and have heard it proclaimed by various government functionaries as the ideal towards which we must all strive. But what does it mean?

Now that’s not an easy answer, even though the first level of translation is:

a human is a human through other humans

a person is a person through other people

Here’s where the interesting thing happens. What is the word for human, from which the word ubuntu is derived? The obvious immediate answer is that it is ‘umuntu’, in the first or human noun class (NC 1). But this word is sometimes used in a way that belies its other meanings. To have a closer look, Vilakazi’s (1958) dictionary gives us a window:

umu-ntu (plural abantu)

  1. a human being, a person
  2. a member of an African indigenous race; a Black person
  3. a person with human feelings

The added connotation of umuntu (the second meaning) is that of an African person, which means that the proverb used above can also mean:

an African person is an African person because of African people

That seems all fine and good, until you start to consider where people like myself (a White male) fit into this idea. The simple answer is that we don’t.

Now, in order to see if this idea has shifted since the end of Apartheid, let’s also have a look at the entry in Isichazimazwi of Mbatha (2010), written ngesiZulu, for umuntu:

  1. isidalwa sikaNkulunkulu esinenkumbulo futhi esikwaziyo ukukhuluma; isidalwa sikaNkulunkulu esengamele yonke indalo; isothamlilo

the creation of God that has memory and furthermore has the ability to speak; the          creation of God that presides over all nature; ‘the one who warms himself at the fire’

  1. owomdabu onsundu wase-Afrika

an person of the brown race of Africa

Before judging whether the idea has shifted, there is one expression deserving a bit more examination – isothamlilo. Directly translated, it means ‘the one who is characterised by the fact that s/he warms her/himself at the fire’. However, its figurative meaning is the same as the second definition – an indigenous brown-skinned person of Africa. So now we can judge and say that, in fact, the idea of umuntu as ‘African person’ is more entrenched in modern times than it was before, and not as rosy as the rainbow nation would have us believe.

Which brings me back to ubuntu. Far from it being an inclusive expression of the common humanity of all members of the species, it actually means ‘the essence of being an African person’ – by contradistinction with ubulungu (whiteness) or ubundiya (Indian-ness) or other possible essential concepts of different races.

And that is why, again and again, after many conversations ngesiZulu around my background and why I speak the language, I have often been greeted with what may seem to be a strange sentence:

ungumuntu wangempela, wena!

you-are-a-human for-real, you!

you are a real human, you

The meaning of this is that I am no longer classed as Other, and am now regarded not just as umlungu, but as umuntu (an African person, living by ubuntu).