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IJPT 2015; 19(1): 189209

Research Report

Jaco S. Dreyer
A practical theological perspective

DOI 10.1515/ijpt-2015-0022

Abstract: The aim of this article is to develop a practical theological perspective

on ubuntu, a (Southern) African tradition of values, norms, and practices. The
context and contested nature of ubuntu are first described. Next we investigate
the notion of ubuntu from the perspective of moral theory. Using Paul Ricoeurs
three-phase model, we explore ubuntu ethics from the perspective of the good
(virtue ethics), the right (duty ethics) and the wise (situation ethics). Lastly we
reflect on the possible significance of ubuntu ethics for practical theology, and
highlight the importance of ubuntu for religious practice, especially with regard
to moral formation and education in faith communities and the public sphere.

Zusammenfassung: Das zentrale Anliegen dieses Artikels liegt darin, eine prak-
tisch-theologische Perspektive auf die (sd-)afrikanische Tradition des Ubuntu zu
erffnen. Ubuntu bezeichnet ein System traditioneller Werte, Normen und
Bruche, dessen Kontext und strittige Bedeutung zunchst erlutert wird. Daran
anschlieend untersucht der Artikel Ubuntu mithilfe ausgewhlter moraltheore-
tischer Kategorien. Unter Rckgriff auf Paul Ricoeurs Drei-Phasen-Modell wird die
Ubuntu-Ethik aus der Perspektive des Guten (Tugendethik), des Richtigen (Pflicht-
ethik) und des Weisen (Situationsethik) nher betrachtet. Schlielich bedenkt der
Artikel die mgliche Bedeutsamkeit des Ubuntu fr die praktische Theologie. Im
Zuge dessen werden insbesondere die moralische Bildung und Erziehung in ffent-
lichen und gemeindlichen Lernrumen als Bereiche identifiziert, die von einer
praktisch-theologischen Auseinandersetzung mit Ubuntu profitieren knnten.

The theme of the twelfth biennial conference1 of the International Academy of

Practical Theology (IAPT) is Practicing Ubuntu: Practical Theological Perspectives
on Injustice, Personhood and Human Dignity. The notions of (in)justice, person-

Jaco S. Dreyer: Professor of Practical Theology, Department of Philosophy, Practical and

Systematic Theology, School of Humanities, University of South Africa, PO Box 392, Pretoria,
0003, South Africa, Email:
190 Jaco S. Dreyer

hood and human dignity are familiar concepts to any theologian. However, many
practical theologians, especially those from the northern hemisphere or from con-
texts removed from (Southern) Africa, may be less familiar with the notion of
ubuntu. Some may have heard the word before, and may have an idea what it refers
to, but may be unfamiliar with the particulars of this concept. Even those who are
quite familiar with the concept and its use in the media and popular press may have
some doubts about the history and different uses of this concept. One may also ask
why it is practicing ubuntu and not just ubuntu. What does practicing ubun-
tu mean? What is the practical theological relevance or significance of this
concept? Why is it so prominent in the conference theme? The subtitle of the
conference theme also raises questions about ubuntu. What is the relationship
between practicing ubuntu and practical theological perspectives on (in)justice,
personhood and human dignity?
The aim of this article is not to try to answer all the questions above or to
explore the IAPT Pretoria conference theme in all its nuances. It is limited to an
attempt to develop a perspective on ubuntu and to indicate why this rich and
interesting concept matters for practical theologians, not only in the (Southern)
African context where the term originated, but also beyond this context. In short,
the aim is to present a practical theological perspective on ubuntu.2
In order to do so, I first explore the notion of ubuntu and its use from a brief
literature review. It will soon be clear that it is a much-contested concept and that it
has been (and still is) used, and one could add abused, by politicians, theologians,
policy makers and business people for different purposes. I will opt to view ubuntu
as an African ethical tradition, and more particularly a (living) tradition of values,
norms and practices that originated in Southern Africa.3 The next step of this
journey to develop a practical theological perspective on ubuntu will be to examine
the meaning of ubuntu as an ethical tradition from the wider angle of moral theory.
Using Paul Ricoeurs three-phase model,4 I will explore ubuntu ethics from the

1 Pretoria, South Africa, 1216July 2015.

2 This is not a first effort to reflect on ubuntu from a practical theological perspective. See for
example: Johan Cilliers, In search of meaning between ubuntu and into. Perspectives on preach-
ing in post-apartheid South Africa, Paper delivered at the eighth international conference of
Societas Homiletica, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1925July 2008; Johann Meylahn, Poetically
Africa dwells. A dialogue between Heideggers understanding of language as the house of Being
and African Being-with (ubuntu) as a possible paradigm for postfoundational practical theology
in Africa, Verbum et Ecclesia 31/1, 9p., 2010.
3 Although it is geographically located in Southern Africa, it has much in common with similar
philosophies in other parts of the African continent.
4 See Johannes van der Ven, Formation of the moral self, Grand Rapids (Eerdmans) 1998,
Ubuntu 191

perspective of the good (virtue ethics), the right (duty ethics) and the wise (situation
ethics). The last step of this short journey towards a practical theological perspec-
tive on ubuntu will be to explore the possible significance of ubuntu ethics for
religious moral practice, in particular from a practical theological perspective on
moral formation and education.
Before we start the journey, I would like to declare my positionality. I am a
white South African, from a reformed theological background and trained in
Western scientific discourses. It may thus seem quite presumptuous to write
about a topic such as ubuntu. The notion of ubuntu is not part of the life-world
in which I grew up. However, my motivation to pursue this is based on a keen
interest to learn from other cultures and traditions, in particular those in the
context in which I live and work. I therefore do not claim any insider knowledge
and/or particular experience of ubuntu. My intention is not to domesticate the
concept of ubuntu or to colonise it for some form of Western practical theolo-
gical discourse. I value the indigenous knowledge of other cultures, in particular
the cultures in the Southern African context with which I am more familiar.5 My
intention is to respectfully reflect on this rich and important cultural tradition.
My limited understanding of African languages, cultures and world-views may
unintentionally display the prejudices (in the Gadamerian sense) of my own
(white, privileged) life-world.6 However, I am determined to learn about and to
try to correct these prejudices whenever I become aware of them.

5 A key assumption in this article is that we can learn from African traditions, beliefs and thought
systems. I agree with Birgit Brock-Utne when she, following Kwasi Wiredu, states: In the evolving
global culture, the West does well to listen to Africa. In fact there is much the West could learn
from Africans about leading a good and harmonious life, taking care of each other and beloved
dead ones, respecting the wisdom of older people, and being one with nature and the spiritual
world. Birgit Brock-Utne, Peace research with a diversity perspective. A look to Africa, Interna-
tional Journal of Peace Studies 9/2, 2004, 109123, 110111.
6 Antjie Krog writes about the difficulty of those of us schooled within a white western system
to recognise the undercurrent of ubuntu in the political, social and religious practices of
nonwhite South Africans. Antjie Krog, This thing called reconciliation forgiveness as part of
an interconnectedness-towards-wholeness, South African Journal of Philosophy 27/4, 2008, 353
366, 219.
192 Jaco S. Dreyer

1 Ubuntu: context and contestation

Outside the (Southern) African context, ubuntu is perhaps more widely associated
with the free computer operating system ubuntu7 rather than with a worldview,
philosophy or ethos. However, the ubuntu operating system, the brainchild of the
South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth and a team of developers, was
deliberately named after this African cultural tradition: Ubuntu is an ancient
African word meaning humanity to others. It also means I am what I am because
of who we all are. The Ubuntu operating system brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the
world of computers.8 This is just one example of the popularity and widespread
use of the term ubuntu.
Why did the idea of ubuntu suddenly become so popular in the 1990s? In order
to understand this marked change in the use of the term ubuntu, it is important to
briefly mention the context in which this term originated and why it gained a
sudden popularity. In an interesting article on the history of the use of ubuntu,
Gade9 says that the word ubuntu has been used in print at least since 1846.
Although this is the earliest evidence of the word in print, it has to be kept in mind
that ubuntus origin lies in an oral culture. This lack of use of the term in printed
material was probably further exacerbated by the marginalisation of African cul-
ture in colonial contexts. According to Gade,10 the word ubuntu was mostly used
to refer to the quality of a person before it made its entrance in the political sphere
in postcolonial times. This was, for example, the case in Zimbabwe where ubuntu
was used for political aims after independence.11 Ubuntu thus came to play a vital
role in political rhetoric after independence. It forms part of narratives of return12
that were used to affirm the dignity of Africans after independence, a dignity that
was severely scarred by the colonial powers.

7 This is the first result (hit) when searching for ubuntu on Google:, last
viewed May 19, 2015.
8, last viewed May 19, 2015. The importance of
community in the ubuntu philosophy is also made explicit regarding ubuntu software: Together
we have the opportunity to bring real technological freedom to every part of the world, across
multiple devices and the cloud, and clothed in an elegant, beautiful, experience. It is a bold
vision, but our greatest strength in Ubuntu is our community and together we can do this. Come
and join us and be a part of bringing Ubuntu to the masses,, last
viewed May 19, 2015.
9 Christian B.N.Gade, The historical development of the written discourses on ubuntu, South
African Journal of Philosophy 30/3, 2013, 303329.
10 Ibid., 315316.
11 Ibid., 309311.
12 Ibid., 304306.
Ubuntu 193

This was also the case in South Africa after the political transition to democ-
racy in 1994. The idea of ubuntu suddenly started to feature prominently in South
African political, social, moral and religious discourses. It was a time of great
uncertainty and political tension, but also of reconciliation, for restoring the
dignity13 of all, and for starting to build a new South Africa. Zondi refers to the
doctrine of ubuntu that has shown capacity to translate itself into a strategic
impetus for replacing colonial humanism on which the fragmenting notion of
separate development of races was founded with a decolonial one premised on
restoring authentic sociality through the dictum: I am because you are.14 It was
during these years of a fledgling democracy that ubuntu was used as a guideline
in the search for new values and ethical principles in the context of moral
regeneration, in the business sector and by the South African government.15 There
were great expectations regarding ubuntus potential to deal with the conflict in
the country and to create harmony.
It gained particular importance due to the work of the Truth and Reconcilia-
tion Commission (TRC) from 1996 to 1998. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu,
then Archbishop of Cape Town of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa
(now the Anglican Church of Southern Africa) and a Nobel peace prize laureate,
was appointed as chairperson of the TRC. He often stressed the importance of
ubuntu regarding forgiveness and reconciliation, and became known for his
ubuntu theology.16 Ubuntu also played a role in the moral regeneration move-
ment and the search for new values and ethical principles. The South African
theologian Ramathate Dolamo writes that the tenets of botho/ubuntu are being

13 If the underlying values of community, human relations and equality had not been distorted
or nullified there would be no need to talk about ubuntu as a guiding philosophy in the building of
a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. Siphamandla Zondi, The rhetoric
of ubuntu diplomacy and implications for making the world safe for diversity, African Journal of
Rhetoric, Decolonial Ethics and Africa 6, 2014, 103142, 107108.
14 Ibid., 105. The birth of a new South Africa in 1994 marked the beginning of attempts to give
practical meaning to the idea of South Africa founded on humanistic principles and values, one
underpinned by the liberating ideology of non-racism, non-sexism and social democracy. This
also found expression in the rhetoric of the rainbow nation, unity in diversity, batho pele (people
first), masakhane (let us build together), and ubuntu or botho. Ibid., 104.
15 David A.McDonald, Ubuntubashing. The Marketisation of African Values in South Africa,
Review of African Political Economy 37/124, 2010, 13952.
16 It is apparent that there is a natural synergy between Christian values and ubuntu. Arch-
bishop Tutu, who is rooted in a strong Christian tradition and the broader Anglican Fellowship,
has regularly preached about the closeness of this relationship. His work and that of other
theologians in South Africa has given rise to the idea of ubuntu theology where ethical
responsibility comes with a shared identity John Hailey, Ubuntu. A literature review, Paper
prepared for the Tutu Foundation, London, November 2008.
194 Jaco S. Dreyer

revisited as Africa is searching for ethical principles and values that can assist in
the designing of models of development and wealth creation within the neoliberal
and globalising framework.17 As early as June 1997, at a meeting between then-
President Nelson Mandela and leaders from Faith-based Organizations, a special
appeal was made to religious leaders to support the government in nation-building
and social transformation, and to address the spiritual malaise in the country.18
This drive towards moral regeneration received additional impetus with a Moral
Summit hosted by Mr Mandela in October 1998.19 In 2003, the search began for
common values among South Africans, and in 2007, the Moral Regeneration
Movement MRM charter of positive values20 was adopted. The idea of ubuntu was
included in this MRM charter as well as in its mission statement.21
In the early years of the new democracy, ubuntu rhetoric was thus often used
in political discourses to further nation building, reconciliation, and to restore the
dignity of those people who were regarded as second-class citizens under apart-
heid.22 Ubuntu also featured strongly in public policies, in the context of jurispru-
dence23 and the new school curricula that were developed for the new South
Africa.24 The ubuntu rhetoric was, however, not only focused inward. It also
became part of the rhetoric of the African renaissance, African humanism and the
idea that the world can learn something from Africa.
Given the oral culture of origin, the difficulty of translating ubuntu into other
languages, and its shifting meaning, it is difficult to give a definite description of
ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Nguni word consisting of the augment prefix u-, the abstract

17 Ramathate Dolamo, Botho / Ubuntu. The Heart of African Ethics, Scriptura 112/1, 2014, 110.
18 Concerning the history of MRM, cf., last viewed May 19, 2015.
19 Ibid. See also McDonald, Ubuntubashing (n. 15), 142.
20 Cf., last viewed May 19, 2015.
21 The ultimate objective of the Moral Regeneration Movement is to assist in the development of
a just, tolerant and moral society for the common good through the revival of the spirit of Botho /
Ubuntu and the actualisation and realisation of the values and ideals enshrined in our constitu-
tion, using all available resources and harnessing all initiatives in government, business and civil
society. Cf., last viewed May 19, 2015.
22 Zondi, The rhetoric of ubuntu (n. 13), 104.
23 There were attempts to include the notion of ubuntu in the constitution of the new South
Africa. It was included in the post-amble of the Interim Constitution, but was eventually omitted
in the final Constitution that was adopted by parliament in 1996. See Drucilla Cornell, Exploring
Ubuntu Tentative Reflections,, last viewed May 19, 2015.
24 It was not long before academics became interested in the concept of ubuntu. It was a time
when indigenous knowledge was affirmed and money became available for research. See Thad-
deus Metz, Just the beginning for ubuntu: reply to Matolino and Kwindingwi, South African
Journal of Philosophy 33/1, 2014, 6572; see note2 on p.66 for a list of scholars in or associated
with South Africa who contributed to the discourse on ubuntu.
Ubuntu 195

noun prefix bu-, and the noun stem -ntu, meaning person in Bantu languages.25
It is a term that is difficult to translate in English, and most often it is simply
translated as personhood or humanness.26 In Sesotho, another indigenous
South African language, it is known as bothu.27 Although the word ubuntu is
geographically located in southern Africa, in particular South Africa and Zim-
babwe, there is much agreement in the literature that it refers to a value system
that is also found in other parts of Africa. Kamwangamalu, summarising a
number of descriptions and definitions of ubuntu in an article on a sociolinguistic
perspective on ubuntu, draws the following conclusion:

These definitions, and others, have one theme in common: ubuntu is a value system which
governs societies across the African continent. It is a system against whose values the
members of a community measure their humanness. These values, like the ubuntu system
from which they flow, are not innate but are rather acquired in society and are transmitted
from one generation to another by means of oral genres such as fables, proverbs, myths,
riddles, and story-telling.28

One of the most famous descriptions, and perhaps the one most widely quoted, is
from Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutus book No future without forgiveness.
Tutu writes:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks to the very essence of
being human. When you want to give high praise to someone we say, Yu, u nobuntu; he
or she has ubuntu. This means that they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and
compassionate. They share what they have. It also means that my humanity is caught up, is
inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, a person is a
person through other people (in Xhosa Ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu and in Zulu
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye). I am human because I belong, I participate, I share. A person
with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened
that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes with
knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are
humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were
less than who they are.29

25 Nkonko M.Kamwangamalu, Ubuntu in South Africa. A sociolinguistic perspective to a pan-

African concept, Critical Arts. South-North Cultural and Media Studies 13/2, 1999, 2441, 25.
26 Ibid., 25. In this article we keep to the Zulu word ubuntu as this is the term most often used in
the literature.
27 Puleng LenkaBula, Beyond anthropocentricity Botho / Ubuntu and the quest for economic
and ecological justice in Africa, Religion & Theology 15, 2008, 375394, 375.
28 Kamwangamalu, Ubuntu in South Africa (n. 25), 27.
29 Desmond Tutu, No future without forgiveness, London (Rider) 1999, 3435.
196 Jaco S. Dreyer

This description captures many of the features commonly associated with ubuntu.
Firstly, it is a philosophy of life or moral philosophy rooted in the southern
African context as indicated by the languages referred to (Xhosa and Zulu).30
Secondly, ubuntu is best expressed in aphorisms and practices. This reflects the
oral tradition in which it originated. Thirdly, it describes the interconnectedness31
or togetherness32 of all humans, and that it is only possible to become a person
through other persons. Fourthly, it describes the dynamic interaction, the active
play of forces,33 between the individual and the community. The wellbeing of the
individual cannot be disconnected from the wellbeing of the community and vice
versa. The interactive ethic34 of ubuntu implies that we all share the responsibility
for our togetherness, and this togetherness in turn empowers each individual
person. It is only in a community that a person finds his or her personal identity
and true humanity. Fifthly, an ubuntu ethic refers to the importance of values
such as generosity, hospitality, friendliness, compassion and solidarity.
Other authors stress the importance of the relational self and intersubjec-
tivity, and see it as an (a Southern) African view on personhood. It refers to the
relational nature of being: I am because we are. This worldview features strongly
in African traditional communities, and stands in sharp contrast to the highly
individualistic, consumer-oriented worldview that seems to dominate in many
parts of the world. Forster aptly describes of the relationship between ubuntu and
personhood as follows:

The question who am I? (subjective) is intricately related to who you say that I am
(objective) and who we are together (intersubjective). Instead of being a lone subject, or a
quantifiable and containable object, we are all intersubjects, fundamentally interwoven
into a common cosmic identity; human beings that are run through with sacred dignity. It is
not just me, it is not just you, it is not just the material reality, neither is it just the spiritual

30 Is ubuntu uniquely African? Louw writes: However, although compassion, warmth, under-
standing, caring, sharing, humanness et cetera are underscored by all the major world views,
ideologies and religions of the world, I would nevertheless like to suggest that Ubuntu serves as a
distinctly African rationale for these ways of relating to others. Dirk J.Louw, Ubuntu. An African
assessment of the religious other, The Paideia Archive, the Twentieth World Congress of Philoso-
phy in Boston, Massachusetts from August 1015, 1998, cf.
AfriLouw.htm, last viewed May 19, 2015.
31 Krog, This thing called reconciliation (n. 6), 214, 218. Krog refers to the interconnected-
ness-towards-wholeness as a key aspect of ubuntu as witnessed during the South African Truth
and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process.
32 Drucilla Cornell / Karin van Marle, Exploring ubuntu. Tentative reflections, African Human
Rights Law Journal 5/2, 2005, 195220, 206.
33 Ibid., 205.
34 ibid., 207.
Ubuntu 197

reality; true reality is a sacred interweaving of all these things true reality is beyond one
single quantifiable truth, it is generous. True identity, in this sense, is a dynamic engage-
ment and discovery of mutual identity and shared dignity .35

We also have to mention two other significant features of ubuntu. First, its holistic
approach to life and the emphasis on the connectedness of all living creatures and
the environment (a cosmovision36) are often mentioned in the ubuntu literature.
Second, ubuntu stresses the spiritual nature of our existence. Louw writes for
example that ubuntu serves as the spiritual foundation of African societies.37
Most authors describe ubuntu in a positive way. However, the notion of
ubuntu is not without its critics. Some authors refer, in addition to the charge of
vagueness, to the danger of a romanticisation of an indigenous past.38 Mohale39
criticises for example the use of the Ubuntu worldview in the recently adopted
South African Heritage Transformation Charter: Fairly early into the analysis of
the texts, it became apparent that the Heritage Transformation Charter repeatedly
used the philosophical concept of Ubuntu and nostalgic elements of an African
community-based egalitarian society towards recommendations for the resolu-
tion of inequalities in the heritage sector as well as the wider South African
society. Others point out that the Ubuntu philosophy favours a form of collecti-
vism with the accompanying negative consequences for the individual: In short,
although it articulates such important values as respect, human dignity and
compassion, the Ubuntu desire for consensus also has a potential dark side in
terms of which it demands an oppressive conformity and loyalty to the group.40
A recent debate in the South African Journal of Philosophy clearly illustrates
the divergence of opinion regarding ubuntu. Matolino and Kwindingwi, in the
article The end of ubuntu, refer to the morass that appears to accompany the

35 Dion A.Forster, A generous ontology. Identity as a process of intersubjective discovery an

African theological contribution, HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 66, 2010, Art.731,
36 Isayvani Naicker, The search for universal responsibility. The cosmovision of ubuntu and the
humanism of Fanon, Development 54/4, 2011, 45560.
37 Cf. Louw, Ubuntu (n. 30). The spiritual aspect also includes the role of the ancestors as part of
the web of life forces.
38 Dirk J.Louw, Power sharing and the challenge of ubuntu ethics. Paper presented at the Forum
for Religious Dialogue Symposium of the Research Institute for Theology and Religion held at the
University of South Africa, Pretoria, 2627March 2009. Cf. /, last viewed May 19,
39 Gabriele Mohale, What does Ubuntu solve? Thoughts on the rhetoric used in the making of the
Heritage Transformation Charter, Social Dynamics 39/3, 2013, 481495.
40 Louw, Ubuntu (n. 30).
198 Jaco S. Dreyer

notion of ubuntu, and conclude that there is little reason to be an advocate for a
parochial narrative such as ubuntu.41 Thaddeus Metz, a philosopher well
known for his work on ubuntu, replied that the academic discourse and political
relevance of ubuntu are actually in their infancy. It is not the end of ubuntu that
is in sight; it is actually just the beginning.42 Depending on ones perspective, and
in the virtual absence43 of empirical research on ubuntu, one can find much
support for both positions.
It is also necessary to distinguish between the discourse on ubuntu and the
work of ubuntu.44 Not everyone agrees that the relatively peaceful transition and
reconciliation was due to the practice of ubuntu as maintained by the celebrated
South African author and poet Antjie Krog.45 Salazar writes for example:

Indeed, and as odd as it may seem, it would be worth revisiting Desmond Tutus oratory
and see how it functions, with regard to his local audiences, at the South African TRC (Truth
and Reconciliation Commission) in particular, and whether concerning reparation and
pardon discourse is not rooted in the imposition of a set of rhetorical practices onto
audiences that entertain with missionary speech, whatever its holder, an ambiguous,
unresolved, un-articulated relationship which the commonplace recourse to ubuntu simply
passes over.46

There is much more to explore, but it should suffice at this point to indicate that
there are different traditions and uses of ubuntu, and that ubuntu is a contested
notion, both in the discourse on ubuntu and in its practical use.47 In this article, I

41 Bernard Matolino, Wenceslaus Kwindingwi, The end of ubuntu, South African Journal of
Philosophy 32/2, 2013, 197205.
42 Cf. Metz, Just the beginning (n. 24).
43 See Elina Hankela, Ubuntu, migration and ministry. Being human in a Johannesburg church,
Leiden (Brill) 2014, 64. Hankelas work is a clear exception in this regard.
44 Leonhard Praeg, An answer to the question: What is [ubuntu]?, South African Journal of
Philosophy 27/4, 2008, 367385. See also Meylahn, Poetically Africa dwells (n. 2).
45 Krog, This thing called reconciliation (n. 6). Antjie Krog was a journalist at the hearings of
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). According to Krog, it was because of the spirit of
ubuntu rather than the Christian spirit of forgiveness that so many victims of apartheid crimes
were willing to forgive their perpetrators.
46 Philippe-J.Salazar, Rhetoric in Africa. Three encounters, African Journal of Rhetoric 1, 2009,
2851, 38.
47 I agree with Bennett when he writes that a better path to understanding ubuntu is to consider
the ways and contexts in which the word is being used. An analysis of this nature assumes that we
should pay less attention to predetermined, essentialised meanings and more to the way in which
past and current users are constructing meanings. Thomas W Bennett, Ubuntu. An African
equity, Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal / Potchefstroom Elektroniese Regstydskrif 14/4,
2011, 3061, 31.
Ubuntu 199

opt for the following working definition: ubuntu is a form of (southern) African
ethics, an inherited, but living tradition48 of values, norms and practices for the
well-being of communities and their members, embedded in a specific African

2 Ubuntu and moral theory

We concluded the previous section by stating that we opt for a view of ubuntu as
a dynamic tradition of norms, values and practices embedded in an African
worldview. As such, it can be described as a specific African ethic. The next step
in this journey to develop a practical theological perspective on ubuntu would be
to zoom out to explore the meaning of ubuntu in the context of moral theory.
What kind of moral theory best fits our choice for ubuntu as a living tradition of
particular social values? And what kind of ethic is ubuntu? Is it a form of virtue
ethics or of duty ethics? Ubuntu scholars tend to disagree on this issue.50 In this
section, I briefly present Paul Ricoeurs three-phase model about the good (virtue
ethics), the right (duty ethics) and the wise (situation ethics) as a conceptual
framework for our deliberations on ubuntu as a moral theory.51

48 Ronald Nicolson, Are African ethics really different?,, last

viewed May 19, 2015. Nicolson writes: But no tradition remains unchanged. Africans live in the
same global society that we all do. Over the past century African ethics have been merged with
Christianity and with Islam. Increasingly they have had to come to terms with the realities of
technology and science and with the demands of a market economy. All of the traditional virtues
have to be reinterpreted for a new context. This is true for all cultures; all over the world people
are wrestling with what it means to be good. What worked for our grandparents doesnt always
work for us.
49 This view of ubuntu as an ethical or moral tradition finds ample support in the literature.
Murove states for example that ubuntu is an African ethical tradition and that the heart of
African ethics is found in the concept of Ubuntu. Munyaradzi Felix Morove, Introduction, in:
Munyaradzi Felix Murove (ed.), African ethics. An anthology of comparative and applied ethics,
Scotsville (UKZN Press) 2009, xiv-xvi, xv, xvi. Bennett maintains that ubuntu is probably best
described as a repertoire of norms, a loose collection of principles and values of similar, though
varying types, Bennett, An African equity (n. 47), 48.
50 See for example the lively debate between Metz and other ubuntu scholars. Thaddeus Metz,
Ubuntu as a Moral Theory. Reply to Four Critics, South African Journal of Philosophy 26/4, 2007,
51 I will only provide a brief summary of Ricoeurs moral theory as it is well known in practical
theological circles. See for example the discussion of Ricoeurs little ethics by three of the
founding fathers of the International Academy of Practical Theology (IAPT): Don S.Browning,
Christian ethics and the moral psychologies, Grand Rapids (Eerdmans) 2006; Richard R.Osmer,
The teaching ministry of congregations, Louisville (Westminster John Knox) 2005; Van der Ven,
200 Jaco S. Dreyer

Ricoeur presents an interesting moral theory in his important work Oneself as

another.52 This moral theory, in which he tries to reconcile Aristotles phronsis,
by way of Kants Moralitt, with Hegels Sittlichkeit,53 bridges the gap between
teleological (Aristotle) and deontological (Kant) ethics. It forms part of his broader
project to develop a hermeneutics of the self in terms of a theory of human action.54
It is only after a few detours to try to answer the question Who? in terms of the
linguistic (Who is speaking?), practical (Who is acting?), and narrative (Who
is recounting about himself or herself?) dimensions of selfhood that Ricoeur
arrives at the ethical and moral (Who is the moral subject of imputation?)
dimension of selfhood.55 With this final detour, Ricoeur discusses the ethical and
moral determinations of action56 in terms of the good, the just and the wise.
Ricoeur makes a vital distinction between ethics and morality, and argues for
the primacy of ethics over morality that is, of the aim over the norm.57 In the
words of Van der Ven, the good has primacy over the right, because it is embedded
in the community in which we live, the tradition from which we are fed, the context
by which we are shaped.58 Following Aristotle, Ricoeur takes living well or the
good life as the primary intention of ethics, and formulates the ethical aim as
aiming at the good life with and for others, in just institutions.59 However, it is
important to note that the good life does not only refer to the individual dimen-
sion. It also includes the interpersonal and societal components.60 He thus distin-
guishes three aspects of the good as it is applied to actions, namely living well at
the individual level (aiming at the good life), care and concern for others at the
interpersonal level (with and for others), and justice at the societal level (in just
institutions).61 These three components of the good life subsequently feature in

Formation of the moral self (n. 4). Browning, Ibid., 47, writes: Although Ricoeur is a philosopher,
his hermeneutic model has great relevance to the empirical study of morality and the field of
religious and theological ethics.
52 Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as another, transl. by Kathleen Blamey, Chicago (The University of
Chicago Press) 1992.
53 Ibid., 290.
54 Ibid., 19. In a sense, one could say that these studies together have as their thematic unity
human action and that the notion of action acquires, over the course of the studies, an ever-
increasing extension and concreteness.
55 Ibid., 16, 169.
56 Ibid., 18.
57 Ibid., 171.
58 Van der Ven, Formation of the moral self (n. 4), 9. See also Browning, Christian ethics (n. 51),
59 Ibid., 172.
60 Ibid., 201.
61 Ibid., 203. Ricoeur refers to this as the tripartite structure of the predicate good.
Ubuntu 201

all three phases of Ricoeurs model about the good (virtue ethics), the right (duty
ethics) and the wise (situation ethics).
Due to this emphasis on the good life as the primary intention of ethics,
Ricoeur starts his three-phase model on the ethical level with a study of the self
and the ethical aim.62 He describes in turn, how the ethical aim of the good
life is concretised with regard to the three aspects of the good. Firstly, regard-
ing living well, Ricoeur describes the role of practices, life plans and ultimately
the expectation of the narrative unity of a life. Secondly, regarding concern for
others (solicitude), he describes the importance of caring for others, the impor-
tance of mutuality and reciprocity in relationships, and following Aristotle, he
describes friendship as the prime example of what living well with others implies.
Lastly, regarding just institutions,63 he describes the importance of equality, of
distribution and fair shares, of the will to live together, of dealing with plurality,
the role of power, and most importantly justice as the indispensable condition for
living together. Justice here does not refer to legal justice, which forms part of
duty ethics, but a sense of justice oriented to the good.64. These three aspects are
all interrelated, with the one presupposing the other. According to Ricoeur, living
a good life on the ethical plane leads to a sense of self-esteem.65
This brings us to the second phase of Ricoeurs model where he deals with the
self and the moral norm.66 Not surprisingly is Kant his primary interlocutor in the
second phase. The discussion now takes place at the moral67 level (duty ethics),
and follows the same tripartite structure of living well, solicitude, and justice. The
central concern at the moral level is universality. First, regarding living well,
Ricoeur argues that the aim of the good life also entails obligations. His point of
departure is Kants view that there is no unrestricted good, except a good will.68
Owing to our innate inclination towards evil, the free will is corrupted, and this

62 Ibid., 169202.
63 Ibid., 194. Ricoeur describes an institution as the structure of living together as this belongs to
a historical community (194) and says that (W)what fundamentally characterizes the idea of
institution is the bond of common mores and not that of constraining rules (194).
64 Ibid., 197. Ricoeur describes the just oriented towards the good as an extension of interperso-
nal relationships to institutions.
65 Ibid., 203.
66 Ibid., 203239.
67 The move into morality, in contrast to mere ethical striving after the goods of life, requires acts
of interpretation about the traditions and communities that have formed us. Browning, Christian
ethics (n. 51), 9.
68 Ricoeur, Oneself as another (n. 52), 205. It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the
world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification [ohne Einschrnkung],
except a good will.
202 Jaco S. Dreyer

affects our ability to choose freely. Because there is evil, the aim of the good life
has to be submitted to the test of moral obligation .69 The maxim here is: Act
solely in accordance with the maxim by which you can wish at the same time that
what ought not to be, namely evil, will indeed not exist.70 Secondly, with regard
to care and concern for others (solicitude), we have to treat others, as we would
like them to treat us. It is here, in our relationship with others, that violence and
domination raise their ugly head.71 To all the figures of evil responds the no of
morality.72 This is where the norm of reciprocity and respect for others, so
beautifully captured in the Golden Rule, becomes important. The second Kantian
imperative thus states: Act in such a way that you always treat humanity,
whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a
means, but always at the same time as an end.73 Thirdly, regarding just institu-
tions, Ricoeur points to the fact that heavy ambiguities such as the interpreta-
tion of a fair or just share (from the perspective of the individual or the
community?) and the interpretation of equality (arithmetic or proportional?)
make it necessary to apply principles of justice rather than merely relying on a
sense of justice. Ricoeur refers here to the Kantian imperative, in its most radical
form, namely: Act solely in accordance with the maxim which you would want
to become a universal law.74 Keeping the hermeneutics of the self in mind,
Ricoeur writes that whereas ethical action leads to self-esteem, moral action leads
to self-respect.75
The third and last phase of Ricoeurs model of the good, the right and the
wise is a study of the self and practical wisdom. This time his primary interlocutor
is Hegel. This phase is necessary due to the inevitable conflicts that arise on the
level of obligation. The prejudices of those who apply the principles, but also the
one-sidedness of the moral principles which themselves are confronted with the
complexity of life,76 often cause moral conflicts. Thus, even after testing the
ethical aim (virtue ethics) with the moral norm (duty ethics) we still need moral
judgment in situation or practical wisdom (situation ethics) to guide us when
ethical conflicts arise and we are challenged to adjust ideal solutions with

69 Ibid., 218.
70 Ibid., 218.
71 Ibid., 220221.
72 Ibid., 221.
73 Ibid., 222.
74 Ibid., 238.
75 Ibid., 215. Respect is self-esteem that has passed through the sieve of the universal and
constraining norm in short, self-esteem under the reign of the law.
76 Ibid., 249.
Ubuntu 203

attention to the social and natural constraints of concrete situations.77 According

to Ricoeur this implies a return to the thick of ethics78, but now an ethics
purified by the test of the moral norm. Reversing the order, Ricoeur describes how
practical wisdom functions at the level of institutions where the rule of law has to
be applied, in interpersonal situations where care for others becomes a critical
solidarity with others, and lastly, at the personal level where practical wisdom
takes the form of convictions. The self-esteem of the first phase has now been
deepened by care for others and a concern for justice. This makes recognition, not
only of the self, but also the other than self, possible.
We now return to ubuntu ethics and ask: what perspectives from Ricoeurs
ethicomoral79 studies could deepen our understanding of ubuntu ethics? I am
very aware that it is a risky move. There is a constant danger that African ethics
and its possible contribution to a global ethics could be colonised by looking at
ubuntu ethics through another Western perspective.80 Is Ricoeurs model, em-
bedded in a Western philosophical tradition and with so much emphasis on
selfhood and the autonomy of the individual, really suitable for a discussion of
ubuntu ethics, rooted in African philosophical tradition and with its emphasis on
community? It will require a much more sophisticated philosophical discussion to
untangle all the issues at stake. However, for the sake of this article I will briefly
explore ubuntu ethics from the perspective of Ricoeurs model, keeping this
danger firmly in mind.81 The main idea here is the movement in Ricoeurs model
from virtue ethics to duty ethics, and finally to situation ethics. My thesis is that
this three-phase model can help us, firstly, to move beyond the option of seeing

77 Browning, Christian ethics (n. 51), 194, 240.

78 Ricoeur, Oneself as another (n. 52), 249.
79 Ibid., 291.
80 Mungwini writes about the importance of a polycentric global epistemology in which the
imperium and tyranny of Western epistemology give way to the creation of a world into which
many worlds can fit. The promise of a genuine African modernity is not found in a life of mimesis,
but in the ability to reappropriate indigenous forms of knowledge capable of providing alternative
interpretive and normative frameworks upon which the epistemic liberation of Africa can be
grounded. Pascah Mungwini, African modernities and the critical reappropriation of indigenous
knowledges. Towards a polycentric global epistemology, International Journal of African Renais-
sance Studies Multi-, Inter- and Transdisciplinarity 8/1, 2013, 7893, 78.
81 I think that Ricoeurs relational ontology, as set out in the tenth study of Oneself as another,
provides a possible conceptual bridge to the relational ontologies of African philosophies and an
African worldview. For a description of an African worldview, see Amon Eddie Kasambala, The
impact of an African spirituality and cosmology on god-images in Africa. A challenge to practical
theology and pastoral ministry, IJPT 9/2, 2005, 300313. Kasambala writes (p.300): An African
world-view(s), in the context of this article, will refer to the way African people understand their
existence as embracing their cultural values, norms and traditions.
204 Jaco S. Dreyer

ubuntu ethics as either a form of virtue ethics or a form of duty ethics (or even only
as a form of situation ethics); secondly, to address some of the problems asso-
ciated with ubuntu ethics (such as patriarchy, sexism and ethnocentrism); and
thirdly, to highlight the possible contribution of ubuntu ethics to global ethics.
At this point, where different philosophical and ethical traditions meet, it is
an opportune time to state that cultural value systems do not exist in isolation.
Africa is home to a variety of traditions, in particular indigenous traditions,
Western philosophical traditions, Christianity and Islam.82 South Africa is a good
example of this diversity of cultures and cultural value systems. The important
point here is that value systems can and do learn from each other. One should
also note that these ethical systems are living traditions. They are not static, and
are constantly changing and adapting to new circumstances.
We now return to consider ubuntu ethics in the light of Ricoeurs three-phase
model. The first phase of Ricoeurs model deals with the good on the ethical
level. It is at this level that we find the values of a community and the traditions
that are important to them.83 These values may differ between small communities,
but also between larger entities such as ethnic and cultural groups and even vast
geographical areas. We mentioned above some of the values commonly asso-
ciated with ubuntu, such as peace, harmony, generosity, solidarity and human-
ness.84 Looking at ubuntu via the lens of the tripartite structure85 of living well
(individual), with and for others (interpersonal) in just institutions (society), we
can certainly find values associated with ubuntu regarding each of these dimen-
sions. Owing to its community centeredness and the importance of harmony and
reconciliation, it is obvious that ubuntu values are to be found regarding inter-
personal and institutional elements. Are there also values that tie the good
specifically to the individual? Does ubuntu ethics also leave room for individuals
to pursue the good at a personal level? I do indeed think this is the case. Ubuntu
is often misconceived as if it is only concerned with the well-being of commu-
nities. Ubuntu is also concerned with the well-being and personhood of indivi-
duals, as mentioned in the previous section. The values may differ this is to be

82 Murove, Introduction (n. 49), xv.

83 Browning, Christian ethics (n. 51), 49, writes: if ethics is to get off on the right track, we
should interpret our desires and needs through some tested and excellent tradition that has
proven to really satisfy or realize them.
84 Gade, The historical development (n. 9), 307308.
85 The African worldview does, however, go beyond these dimensions to include god, spirits,
ancestors and nature. Kasambala, The impact of an African spirituality (n. 80), 307, writes:
Among African people, human beings are always defined within existing relationships with
other beings, namely God, the spirits, ancestors, and nature.
Ubuntu 205

expected, as values are embedded in cultural traditions and contexts that are
heterogeneous but I think it is obvious that ubuntu ethics fit well with Ricoeurs
description of virtue ethics. In this first phase, we deal here with values that are
particular and not necessarily universal in scope.
It is, however, another question whether the tripartite structure itself is appro-
priate for a reflection on ubuntu ethics. The values of African people86 include
relationships with God, the spirits, ancestors and nature. These values could be
made to fit the dimensions of the tripartite structure, but I think the tripartite
structure that Ricoeur uses ignores some of the dimensions that are significant in
ubuntu ethics. For example, relations with ancestors, spirits, forces and nature
seem to fall outside the tripartite structure. This may perhaps be due to different
ontologies. However, this is a possible topic for future in-depth exploration.
Moving to the next phase in Ricoeurs three-phase model, the phase of norms
and duty ethics, things become more complicated. We saw in our discussion of
Ricoeurs model that the key aspect here is the test of universalisation.87 The
values of a particular tradition now have to be tested according to the universal
principles of justice, which transcend community- and context-bound values and
norms.88 The three maxims related to the three dimensions (individual, interper-
sonal and societal) all formulate norms with a universal intent. Is this also the
case with ubuntu? Can the norms associated with ubuntu also be universalised?89
Does ubuntu contribute to justice and what is right? The work of Thaddeus Metz
and others who argue for ubuntu as a form of deontological ethics is crucial in
this regard.90 It goes beyond the scope of this article to analyse this aspect in

86 Ibid.
87 Browning, Christian ethics (n. 51), 53.
88 Van der Ven, Formation of the moral self (n. 4), 9.
89 Whole societies and cultures also exist within a field of tension between their particular
material value systems and the potential of a formal morality that aspires to universality. Every
culture hedges in this potentially universal morality in a specific way by defining its field and
conditions of application. Hans Joas, The sacredness of the person. A new genealogy of human
rights, Washington DC (Georgetown University Press), 105. Joas adds (p.105): The fact of the
cultural specificity of value systems does not exclude the possibility of taking account of uni-
versalist perspectives. On the contrary, it opens up the question of which specific cultural
traditions interface best with the universality of the right.
90 The favoured moral theory is that actions are right, or confer ubuntu (humanness) on a
person, insofar as they prize communal relationships, ones in which people identify with each
other, or share a way of life, and exhibit solidarity toward one another, or care about each others
quality of life. Such a principle has a Southern African pedigree, provides a new and attractive
account of morality, which is grounded on the value of friendship, and suggests a novel,
companion conception of human dignity with which to account for human rights. According to
this conception, typical human beings have a dignity by virtue of their capacity for community or
206 Jaco S. Dreyer

detail, but I think it is a rich vein of gold to be explored. This could be a way in
which African ethics, of which ubuntu is one manifestation, contributes to global
ethics. Ubuntu ethics opens the possibility for economic and ecological justice in
Africa, as LenkaBula argues.91 It is a question whether human rights law, with all
that it contributes to living well with and for others in just institutions, is (or
could) be able to provide an answer to global crises such as poverty and ecologi-
cal degradation. Is it perhaps time to consider a community-centered approach to
duty ethics as opposed to the individual-centered approach that underlies much
of the human rights discourses of the day?
The third phase of Ricoeurs model is the use of moral judgement in situation
or practical wisdom. This is the phase where the good, having been scrutinized
and purified by the right, must be applied in the concrete situation by considering
the specific circumstances that characterize this situation, including its singular-
ity, fragility, and tragedy.92 Wisdom is required here. Does the ubuntu ethical
tradition reflect wisdom in concrete situations? What resources does ubuntu offer
regarding the wisdom required for moral judgement in conflicting situations? We
know that ubuntu is often associated with peace-building and conflict resolution.
What can we learn from these practices? This is an aspect of the ubuntu tradition
that could be explored in more details in order to learn from the wisdom enclosed
in these practices. The most obvious contribution of the ubuntu tradition lies in the
realm of interpersonal and societal conflict, but one would have to explore what it
means for individuals. One would also have to explore how the rule of law is
exercised in practical situations, and whether solidarity with others also leaves
room for critique. There are also practices related to supernatural93 and evil powers
(witch-hunting practices, for example) where an individual seems to be at the
mercy of the community. One thus needs to explore what scope practical wisdom
in the ubuntu tradition leaves for the individual and his or her convictions.
To end this section, a few comments on viewing ubuntu ethics from the
perspective of moral theory and Ricoeurs three-phase model. First, looking at
ubuntu ethics from the perspective of moral theory could help us to gain an under-

friendliness, where human rights violations are egregious failures to respect this capacity.
Thaddeus Metz, Ubuntu as a moral theory and human rights in South Africa, African Human
Rights Law Journal 11/2, 2011, 532559, 559.
91 LenkaBula, Beyond anthropocentricity (n. 27).
92 Van der Ven, Formation of the moral self (n. 4), 9.
93 Kasambala, The impact of an African spirituality (n. 80), 313, writes: Utilitarian nature of
African Traditional Religion: Good powers are available to control and discharge evil powers. For
this reason spiritual leaders who possess supernatural powers are seen as the true spiritual
leaders, in contrast with those who only preach a message of faith, but have no real effect on
human lives.
Ubuntu 207

standing of ubuntu that moves it out of an ethnic morality towards a trans-

ethnic morality and even to a secular global morality.94 We agree with authors
such as Metz that ubuntu ethics has something to contribute to secular global
morality. Second, seeing ubuntu ethics as a process and a movement from virtue
ethics to duty ethics to situation ethics could help to deal with some of the criticisms
of ubuntu ethics. It is often said that we lost ubuntu, but does this statement refer
to all three phases of ubuntu ethics? However, ubuntu is often seen as the cure for
all the ills of society. We just have to call on people to show ubuntu. From Ricoeurs
model it is clear that moral action requires much more than making an appeal to
ubuntu.95 Ubuntu is also not to be conceived as something that is either present or
absent, or something that stays the same over time. Practising ubuntu is the result
of processes of moral communication and moral formation that stretch over long
periods of time.96 The movement between the good, the right and the wise could
also help to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with ubuntu, such as patriarchy,
sexism and ethnocentrism. Ubuntu ethics as virtue ethics without the test of duty
ethics leave the door open for injustice and the abuse of power. The goods of
ubuntu thus have to be tested by norms that at least strive to be universal. Lastly,
Ricoeurs three-phase model reminds us of the importance of wisdom and the
exercise of good moral judgement in practising ubuntu.
Before leaving the field of moral theory, it is necessary to state that the study
of ubuntu as moral practice can benefit much from other theoretical and disci-
plinary perspectives (sociology and development studies, for example).97 Need-

94 Geering in Martin Prozesky, Cinderella, survivor and savior. African ethics and the quest for a
global ethic, in: Munyaradzi Felix Murove (ed.), African ethics. An anthology of comparative and
applied ethics, Scotsville (UKZN Press) 2009, 313, 6.
95 Critics of ubuntu ethics often ask how it is possible that violent conflicts are so prevalent in
African contexts where ubuntu is supposedly practised. Louw (n. 30), writes for example: These
are controversial issues. For example: in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, where
Ubuntu is claimed to be part of everyday life, violent ethnic and political clashes still occur
frequently and this is surely not the only example of such clashes on the continent of Africa! How
can this be reconciled with Ubuntu? Louws answer resonates with what we discussed above:
Ubuntu is thus both a given and a task or desideratum in African societies. Louw, Ubuntu (n. 30).
96 Joas, sacredness (n. 88). According to Joas, values as such do not engender commitment.
Values also entail more than cognition: If a commitment to values does not grow out of rational
considerations, purely rational arguments may perhaps unsettle value commitments or prompt
the reinterpretation of existing concepts of self and world, but they cannot themselves generate
the force inherent in value commitments. This requires an affirmative genealogy(6). There is a
strong attitudinal aspect present in values. A sociological view on the genesis of values, such as
that of Joas, could be helpful here.
97 See for example Hans Joas, The genesis of values, transl. by Gregory Moore, Chicago (The
University of Chicago Press) 2000.
208 Jaco S. Dreyer

less to say, we also have to study ubuntu empirically in order to gain insight into
the role of ubuntu in actual practices.

3 Religion, morality and ubuntu

We now enter the last stage of the journey that we embarked on in this article,
namely to develop a practical theological perspective on ubuntu. We started by
considering the context of ubuntu and its use (and abuse) in practice and some
views of ubuntu in the literature. Next we considered ubuntu ethics from the
perspective of moral theory, in particular from Ricoeurs three-phase model. We
now turn to practical theology. What is the importance or relevance of the ubuntu
ethical tradition for practical theology?
In order to answer this question, we first consider the relationship between
religion and morality. Van der Vens discussion in Formation of the moral self of the
close relation between morality and religion is very helpful in this regard. He sees
morality as a subtext of religion, and describes the influence of religion on
morality at two levels. First, at the immanent level, religion fulfils an integrating,
an orientating, and a critical function.98 The integrating function refers to the
process of relating external ideas, beliefs, values, and norms to the main Christian
themes such as creation, alienation, liberation and eschatology. The orienting
function is an effort to change moral ideas in the direction of hope. The critical
function in turn is a moral critique of historical developments.99 Second, at the
transcendent level, religion looks at nonreligious moral ideas from a different
perspective and thus gives new meaning to these moral ideas. Van der Ven sum-
marises the relationship between religion and morality by saying that religion can
be inserted into morality, and religion recapitulates morality at a higher level.100
This view of the relationship between religion and morality helps us to see how
ubuntu, as a moral system, could relate to religion. In short, religion can orientate,
integrate and criticise ubuntu ethics, and can also give new meaning to ubuntu. It
is here that the great themes of the Christian narrative about creation and salvation

98 Van der Ven, Formation of the moral self (n. 4), 1617.
99 Ibid., 1617.
100 Ibid., 18. In this way, I hope to have clarified what it means to integrate non-religious
morality within religion and to consider it as a subtext of religion-as-text. At the immanent level,
religion integrates, orients, and criticizes non-religious morality. At the transcendent level, it
recapitulates morality at a higher level, one that premorally, radically-morally, and metamorally
transcends morality altogether. Ibid., 20.
Ubuntu 209

and about the nature and action of God in relation to the world101 present us with
invaluable resources.
The next step is to consider the relationship between morality and practical
theology. Where does morality fit into practical theological discourses? This
crucial issue has been the subject of many methodological debates in practical
theology, and does, of course, depend on ones view of practical theology and of
morality.102 From an action-theoretical perspective we can say that human action
has a moral dimension.103 It thus forms an integral part of practical theologys
task to study and to reflect on the moral dimension of religious action.
How can this be done? It goes beyond the scope of this article to discuss this
aspect in any detail. We only refer here, as one example, to the key role of ubuntu
in moral communication and moral education,104 in faith communities and in the
public sphere.105 It could also be part of interreligious and intermoral dialogue in
contexts that are less familiar with the African tradition of ubuntu. The ubuntu
moral tradition, in a critical hermeneutical dialogue with other moral and reli-
gious traditions, provides vital resources106 that could enhance our understanding
of the good, the just and the wise, locally and globally. Africa can learn from
others, but the world can also learn from Africa.107 Practical theologians would be
wise to engage with this important moral tradition.

101 Browning, Christian ethics (n. 51), 25.

102 Ibid. See also Don Browning, A fundamental practical theology. Descriptive and strategic
proposals, Minneapolis (Fortress Press) 1996.
103 Ricoeur, Oneself as another (n. 52).
104 Van der Ven, Formation of the moral self (n. 4). Van der Ven provides a comprehensive
overview of the informal (discipline and socialization) and formal (transmission, development,
clarification, emotional formation and education for character) modes of moral formation.
105 Osmer, The teaching ministry (n. 51). Osmer provides an excellent overview of moral forma-
tion and education in a congregational context. See also Matsobane J.Manala, Education for
reconstruction. A post-apartheid response to the education crisis in South Africa, Hervormde
Teologiese Studies 58/3, 2002, 10321055, for an example of the role of ubuntu in moral education
in the public sphere.
106 LenkaBula, Beyond anthropocentricity (n. 27).
107 We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this
field of human relationships. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the
world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa giving
the world a more human face. Steve Biko, Some African cultural concepts, in: Pieter Hendrik
Coetzee / APJ Roux (eds.), Philosophy from Africa. A text with readings, Oxford (Oxford University
Press) 1998, 2630, 30.
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