An intuitive understanding of democracy and human rights, of which the sum is ubuntu, suggests that government is the representation of the collective interests of its citizens. A legitimate government is guided by the the social ethic, based on the principles of ubuntu. UBUNTU is a reflection of the collective voice and attitudes of its people. This is a sacred responsibility, for that which is communal is sacred in African epistemology and ontology. When a government suppresses its citizens, it not only delegitimizes itself but commits the greatest sacrilege: it breaks the social and communal ethics. It is an individualistic process that is opposed to the core of African spirituality, which is communal in its nature. Individualism disrupts harmony neglecting the good of all for the benefit of a minority few. Such a style of government is unbecoming and un-African, yet this is the current condition in some African states – especially states where military force is deployed against unarmed citizens. The perpetual instability and inequality present in many African states ends when governments develop the capacity and will to faithfully represent and reflect the collective interests of their citizens.
Most African societies originated as decentralized and self organized states. Citizens could easily and freely move between villages, chiefdoms, and states in search for a society that could accommodate their aspirations. Even as centralized states began to emerge, a king, queen or chief’s position was such that it could never have absolute power. A representative system of checks and balances greatly reigned in the central figurehead’s powers, such that alliances and good relationships with the citizenry were essential to maintaining power – custodianship. The Pan-African philosophy of ubuntu is democratic at its core, representative and serves as a natural foundation for equity, justice and human rights.
The oldest human rights framework, apart from the magna carta, is from West Africa (Mali) in 1236 A.D. Ubuntu has been used as the theoretical framework for the South African constitution, which contains some of the strongest guarantees for human rights in the world. The African human rights frameworks, based on Sub-Saharan African spirituality and philosophy, emphasize the similarity, equality and interdependence, between all humans. Due to the inextricable interconnectedness of humans, the need to affirm and assert the humanity of others is of utmost significance and is essential to one’s development of one’s own humanity.
The need to preserve and restore the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed has been represented in national reconciliation processes throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Most notably at the end of apartheid in South Africa, the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and after the Rwandan genocide, ubuntu was used as a process for restoration of lost humanity.
A return to democracy and a representation of the voices of the people is a return to Africanness. Foreign conquest into the African continent introduced dictatorship and the systematic violation of human rights. Religious persecution by Muslim and European Christian invaders brought about dictatorship and started an history of illegitimate governments and states where the majority of citizens could be ruled without their consent.
In African ontology, to be is to consent to the principles of harmony and interconnectedness. The highest form of legitimacy for an institution is in its reflection of the social ethic. Governments are fit in as much as they preserve and strengthen the harmony within society through representing the collective interests of society, not just an elite few. The government itself isn’t sacred but is entrusted to carry out sacred duties for the benefit of society. An institution and a hero’s celebration are truly the celebration of the communal ethics rather than specific individuals and individual institutions. This is an important nuance that underly every society’s right to call for and re-create a representative government.
When citizens consent to a government, they consent to a structure of organization that, they believe, will best preserve and strengthen society. This structure of organization, which at all times must be congruent with African philosophical thought, namely the interdependency between humans, and the harmony this necessitates, may constantly change and adapt. Within this framework, social cohesion and social action are sacred duties. The communal nature of African traditions and the social ethic, celebrates and legitimizes behavior and attitudes that bring harmony in society.
The contemporary African seeking to live a more fulfilled life finds themselves often at odds with foreign interference and local repression. Social harmony is a complex process that is foundationally defined by the acknowledgement of the humanity of others. To be human, okuba nguMuntu, is to engage in the development of others. It is to see another as human worthy of protection. The Zulu greeting “Sawubona”, which literally means we see you and we affirm your undeniable worth and dignity, reflects this princicple. The process of seeing the humanity of others is an intricate dance, a move towards greater and ever greater harmony.
The process of strengthening harmony is an ongoing one, central to the nature and normative outlook of reality. The ongoing civil activities by citizens all over the African continent is necessary to the thriving of the African continent. These movements must be supported, encouraged and be understood in their correct context. This is a return to legitimacy. A return to ubuntu.