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The African proverb “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” can be translated to imply that to be human is to recognise the humanity of others. It is from this proverb that the notion of Ubuntu is developed. The spirit of Ubuntu, according to my understanding, is essential to be humane and to ensure human dignity is at the core of your actions, thoughts and deeds when interacting with others.

Having Ubuntu is showing care and concern for your neighbour, it is lending a helping hand and displaying an understanding of the dignity with which human beings ought to be treated, simply because they are human. Ubuntu exists because human beings exist and seeks to provide a code of conduct for the co-existence of human beings. Archbishop Desmond Tutu expounds on this human connectedness in his definition of Ubuntu where he defines Ubuntu to mean that, “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours”.

I find the reflections on the spirit of Ubuntu to be befitting as I celebrated Human Right’s day because I am of the view that Ubuntu recognises the humanity and human dignity which is the basis from which we have human rights. Human Rights Day, is an important day in our lives as South Africans as we remember to ever protect our rights as humans living in this our beloved country. As a conscious member of society, I can never forget the courage of the South Africans who raised in unison on 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville in an attempt to proclaim their rights.

The Sharpeville Massacre is central to the public holiday which we celebrate as it affords us, as South Africans, to remember the cost paid to enforce human rights. The rally was an outcry and an outburst of the inhumane treatment that came with the Apartheid regime. Understanding the expectations of how humans ought to be treated becomes imperative in ensuring that such events such as the Sharpeville Massacre never reoccur.

If Ubuntu firmly suggests a humane conduct, is it not then a pivotal guide for society and our response to what we enforce as our human rights?

The South African Bill of Rights which forms the second chapter of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, embeds the rights of all people in our country in an enduring affirmation of the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. With respect to the right to human dignity, the South African Bill of Rights states that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”

I choose to embody the principles and the spirit of Ubuntu in order to exercise my right to human dignity and to duly observe that I afford the humans around me their right to human dignity as well. What becomes apparent when one truly observes the state of our nation, in particular, the major challenges we face as a country, namely unemployment, inequality and poverty, is that our we owe it to ourselves and our children to restore the human dignity of our people. Lest we forget that at the heart of our human rights and the rights we enjoy today as detailed in our Constitution, is our ability to practice and to show Ubuntu to one another.

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I am of the stance that the social ills which we experience in our communities across the country such as crime, gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS and human trafficking, to name a few, need to be juxtaposed with a positive response from civil society guided by humane acts as per the practice of Ubuntu. If each of us in our individual capacity, whether we represent government, corporate South Africa, community and/or society, were to acknowledge our human connectedness, we would think before we speak and act particularly around the consequences of our spoken word and actions.

It is encouraging to see some evidence of the practice of Ubuntu in our country in the active campaigns around some of these issues as well as the inculcation of moral values and the guarding against hate speeches and racial utterance. It shows that the spirit of Ubuntu is to a degree prevalent in our society and can be further encouraged to be the order of the day amongst all people in South Africa.

In closing his tribute to former president Nelson Mandela and his family at Mandela’s memorial service, it was the US former president Barack Obama who said, “there is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us”.

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About the author:

Bongiwe Beja is the General Manager at Silulo Ulutho Technologies (Silulo), a fast-growing technology and education social enterprise which has a significant impact in the emerging, township and rural communities across South Africa. Bongiwe works directly with Schwab Foundation Leader and CEO of Silulo, Luvuyo Rani, on the operational management of the organisation. Prior to Silulo, Bongiwe was in the Investment Management industry and was a specialist in the Business Development and Client Relations of institutional clients and
worked for leading institutions including Sanlam Investments and RisCura Investment Consulting.

She holds a BCom Economics and Finance degree, a BCom Honours in Financial Analysis and Portfolio Management from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and is about to complete her MCom in Development Finance at the UCT Graduate School of business. Bongiwe is part of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers in the Cape Town Hub.