The Common Good

Mandela, Martin, and Ubuntu

What better way to honor Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday today than to reflect on his concept of UbuntuUbuntu, a word from the Bantu languages of southern Africa — roughly translated “I am because we are” — sums up Mandela’s approach to leadership, incorporating a generous spirit and concern for the wellbeing of one’s community.

Hand and foot prints. Vector illustration courtesy ducu59us/shutterstock.com
Hand and foot prints. Vector illustration courtesy ducu59us/shutterstock.com

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Mandela’s understanding of Ubuntu motivated him to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995. South Africa needed to come to terms with how it would bring to justice perpetrators of crimes under the old regime. Retributive justice was not only too costly for the financially strapped country, but would also result in winners and losers and could easily backfire. Blanket amnesty, on the other hand, would leave the victims unacknowledged — in effect victimizing them again.

By establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Nelson Mandela chose a third way, distinct from both retributive justice and blanket amnesty. By inviting perpetrators to apply for amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of their crimes, South Africa chose restorative justice.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom President Mandela named chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, shared Mandela’s understanding of Ubuntu:

Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation.  It speaks about our interconnectedness.  You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.”

Generosity and forgiveness formed the backbone of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission structured itself to facilitate forgiveness by:

1) setting a fixed two-year term for its operations, thus assuring that those who desired amnesty would have ample time to apply for it and also assuring that the process would have a clear ending,

2) collecting statements from victims and perpetrators, and

3) holding public hearings in districts across the country. 

The Commission heard testimony from victims and perpetrators of both government forces and rebel forces, and facilitated forgiveness and restorative justice whenever possible. The result? Instead of a bloodbath, which many had feared, reconciliation and healing occurred.

Nelson Mandela built the new South Africa on Ubuntu.  What can other societies learn from him?  CanUbuntu inspire societal change in other cultures?

The verdict of “not guilty” for George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has polarized America this past week. Can Ubuntu speak to this situation?

One of the most retweeted tweets over the weekend, by Tom Crabtree of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, reflects an Ubuntu mindset:

“How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.”

A sense of the interconnectedness of all of life and a spirit of generosity would, indeed, have led to a very different outcome.  The ubiquity of this tweet, the way the wondering has been embraced by so many people, suggests that a good portion of society might be ready to live into this mindset.  How might anUbuntu mindset lead to a reexamination of Florida’s “stand your ground” law?  Or lead to structures of justice that serve all people equally?

Nelson Mandela gave the gift of Ubuntu leadership to the new South Africa, and in doing so, opened its possibilities to the world.  Let us honor Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday today by engaging our imaginations, our hearts, and our minds in the possibilities of Ubuntu for the challenges before us now.  May we rise to the occasion and apply these principles in our time just as creatively as Nelson Mandela did in his.

Parts of this article are excerpted from The Soul of a Leader by Margaret Benefiel.  Used with permission of the publisher.

Margaret Benefiel, Ph.D., is Executive Officer of Executive Soul, LLC. She is the author of Soul at Work (Seabury, 2005) and The Soul of a Leader (Crossroad, 2008), and co-editor of The Soul of Supervision (Morehouse, 2010).

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