Ubuntu and ways of being in the world: Listening to my colleagues describe Southern African disability history and theory

By Maria Berghs

I am not a historian but I got curious about neglected histories linked to African theory and models of disability when I was working with my colleagues from Zimbabwe - Dr. Tsitsi Chataika and the disabled disability rights activists Kudzai Shava and Abraham Mateta. We were collaborating on a book chapter for an edited collection entitled Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Advocacy.1 As a group, we were trying to elucidate some of the transnational and national struggles we had seen in our own work in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe around advocacy for disability rights. While we were writing together, my colleagues stated that they had an understanding of disability rights linked to South African understandings of Ubuntu. Ubuntu embodies a Southern African humanist and collective ethical philosophy. It states that our way of being human is connected to the humanness of other people. My colleagues also located this philosophy within their own histories of decolonisation and disability activism as a practice. I had come across the concept of ubuntu in terms of South African transitional justice and reconciliation but I had no idea what they meant when correlating it to ‘disability’ or ‘rights’.

In order to engage in a more respectful cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration, I thought I should learn about what ubuntu means philosophically, especially in terms of epistemology and ontology of disability.2 An engagement with disability studies already requires concepts and frameworks that are relegated by mainstream academia. Additionally, there is also the work of understanding what decolonisation now implies and rethinking (dis)ableism through collaborative but accessible work. Thinking about why decolonisation has become so pertinent again, especially when it comes to Southern theory and the turn to the South,3 working through the real world implications of such ideas is usually where discourses around disability tend to stop and academics (usually working alone) cite ‘cultural model’. I think ‘culture’ now functions as a way to silence or put ‘disability‘ in particular academic boxes on paper. For instance, there is almost a tick-box way of writing anthropologically where you sprinkle your essay with some descriptive concepts, definitions of impairment or proverbs linked to disability and then call it ‘indigenous’ or ‘cultural’. I am guilty of this too. Yet, what is often referred to as ‘cultural’ is a specific way of presently being in the world that is informed by a past. Often those ‘cultural’ models also stop at our Western understandings of what ‘disability’ physically embodies because most of our work uses Western philosophy.

South African social rights activist and Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu explains Ubuntu (English).

Ubuntu is not a ‘cultural model’ but a social ethics which describes how a person is a person through their relationships with other people. I am through the humanness and diversity of the other. The expression people use in the South African Zulu language is akin to: I am because we are. In South Africa, what it means to be human and our relatedness to others also encompasses the spiritual relationships to the ancestors and land. The concept of diversity is thus wider than just biological and becomes correlated to relationship between the spiritual and ecological. This has repercussions for understanding impairment as not just biologically located but as cognitive, sensory, mental, physical and (eco) spiritual.

Yet, ubuntu is also a ‘normative claim’4 about how we should live and thus tells us something about the way in which disablement occurs because of lack of respect for the diversity of what it means to be human. Impairment can also be reactionary to a history of colonisation and violence. That’s why I think some of the most exciting work currently, especially using ethnographic methods, is being done by historians - almost excavating this history.5 Thus, in a second step, I wondered how you would view disability as linked to ubuntu in terms of restorative ethical practices to ensure the diversity of what means to be human. How did people understand a struggle for this shared humanity in terms of history of decolonisation? How does it link to history of activism in South Africa and other African countries? What is the link to the history of advocacy around disability? Do we have to think about ubuntu as an African model of disability?

Let’s be clear. I am not an activist either but I am interested in the sociology of disability and rights. The connections between the different theories or models and the practices they engender. During my PhD in sociology and social policy, I was very lucky that one of my supervisors was the British academic and disability activist Professor Colin Barnes, quite a few of my international colleagues who I studied with at the University of Leeds6 consider themselves activists and many of my research participants engage in advocacy around disability issues but don’t call themselves activists.

One of Colin Barnes’ heroes was Vic Finkelstein and so I read about his life history. That’s how I learned about the South African anti-apartheid connection to the origins of British activism around disability. I thus also started reading about differing forms of African activism. What’s nice about Vic Finkelstein’s work is that he doesn’t take ‘models’ too seriously7 and understands that they are linked to particular histories, people and places. For an activist like Finkelstein, you can call the model what you want, as long as it ensures future societal emancipation. His life and work in the diaspora also call into question how Western imaginaries construct notions such as ‘global south’ and ‘disability’. Thus working backwards, it makes sense to ask how and if our past societal emancipations or activisms are linked to particular African philosophies and how those affect models of disability.

Despite having undertaken such research to understand the importance of ubuntu to my colleagues, I had to write a paper about it in my spare time. More and more, the rigid rules of academia mean if you want to climb the career ladder, you are advised to stop publishing in places like African Journal of Disability and on topics that are marginalised. This is the complete opposite message you get within disability studies where increasing diversity, collaborating with your disabled colleagues, contributing to knowledge and ensuring accessibility of your research, especially in African context, is applauded. Moreover, researching and critically questioning why some theories and histories are being neglected is to be prioritised, especially if those insights come from people we work with. Those are also active processes of decolonisation that we need to engage in and shifts in our thinking about whose voices and perspectives matter.

Recommended Citation:
Maria Berghs (2017): Ubuntu and ways of being in the world: Listening to my colleagues describe Southern African disability history and theory. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 3.

[1] Chataika, T., Berghs, M., Mateta, A. & Shava, K. 2015. ‘From whose perspective anyway? The quest for African disability rights activism’, in A. De Waal (ed.), Reclaiming activism: Western advocacy in contention, pp. 187–211, Zed Books, London.
[2] Berghs, M. (2017). Practices and discourses of ubuntu: Implications for an African model of disability?. African Journal of Disability, 6, 8.
[3] Comaroff, J., & Comaroff, J. L. (2015). Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is evolving toward Africa. London and New York: Routledge.
[4] Van der Merwe, W.L. (1996) Philosophy and the multi-cultural context of (post) apartheid South Africa. Ethical Perspectives. 3(2): 1-15.
[5] See: Hunt, N. R. (2015). A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
[6] For example, that’s how I met Kudzai Shava.
[7] Finkelstein, V. 1996. “Modelling Disability.” Available at: http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/finkelstein-modelling-disability.pdf (Accessed on 21st February 2017)


Mediating Disability History to a broader audience: An Institutional Approach

by Sebastian Weinert

As Daniel Blackie pointed out recently on this blog, doing public disability history is an important, but sometimes challenging project.1 In the last couple of months we had the great opportunity to test different ways to communicate the history of a foundation for people with disability to the public. By doing so we gathered some inspiring experiences we are happy to share with other disability historians.

Guido von Donnersmarck sourrounded
by war invalids in Berlin-Frohnau
8th May 2016 has been an important date for the Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung zu Berlin (FDST): Exactly 100 years ago – in the midst of World War I – Guido Graf Henckel Fürst von Donnersmarck established the foundation as a scientific research institute in Berlin. He was an Upper Silesian magnate and one of the richest persons in Prussia.2 In August 1914 – shortly after the outbreak of the “Great War“ – he erected a military hospital at the heart of Berlin-Frohnau – an area near the German capital he had originally acquired for investment purposes. Two years later, von Donnersmarck decided to give his engagement for war invalids a permanent basis by bringing the FDST to life. The history of this institution was quite eventful. Due to several reasons the foundation’s mission to become a scientific research institute coping with the new injuries caused by modern weaponry never came into being. Not until the end of World War II the FDST started its actual work – with a pedagogic instead rather than medical or scientific approach. Eventually, the foundation grew to a sizable institution that provides support for people with disability with housing and leisure activities as well as the operation of two hotels in Rheinsberg and Bad Bevensen. The foundation furthermore runs the P.A.N. Centre for Post-Acute Neurorehabilitation in Berlin-Frohnau and is currently increasing its engagement for scientific research on the field of neurorehabilitation.

On the occasion of its 100th anniversary the management as well as the board of trustees decided to mediate the foundation’s history to a broader audience. Therefore a new Festschrift about the development of the organisation from 1916 until the recent days was commissioned. A similar project marked the occasion of the 75th anniversary 19913, but things have changed during the last 25 years. Not only did the organisation itself undergo drastic structural changes during the last decades, but the historical interest in the history of people with disability has also clearly increased in the new millennium. Research in Disability History has provided a new backdrop, helping us to better understand the history of this particular institution.4 Thus it was time for a new comprehensive monograph of the foundation’s history. After about one year of research and writing the study “100 Jahre Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung 1916-2016“ was published on 7th May 2016.5

A gaze at a lecture in front of visitors of the Villa Donnersmarck in Berlin-Zehlendorf

But this didn’t mean that our goal of communicating the organisation’s past to a broader public was fulfilled. Since our target groups are considerably heterogeneous, ranging from people with multiple disabilities to our employees and even political or scientific stakeholders, we opted for a multi-level mediation process. In addition to the monograph we wrote an easy-to-read summary that first appeared in our magazine WIR and was later issued as a stand-alone booklet.6 Furthermore we curated an exhibition including plenty of audio-visual material and organised several lectures that aimed at various audiences. This means we spoke in front of an academic public, the guests of our hotels in Bad Bevensen and Rheinsberg as well as the visitors of our cultural center Villa Donnersmarck. In addition we conceived a special lecture for the clients with intellectual disabilities at our sheltered independent housing facility.

Last but not least we posted images and short texts using the hashtag #FDST100 on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter to remind the audience of important events that took place in the past. By doing so we managed to reach a considerable number of people from all parts of society. More than 700 people attended to the lectures and exhibition tours, the WIR is almost completely out of stock, and several employees, who all got a personalized copy of the Festschrift as gift, provided enthusiastic feedback about the book. The exhibition was shown in the Villa Donnersmarck, our two hotels and will be shown at our P.A.N. Centre for Post-Acute Neurorehabilitation. Furthermore the exhibition was on display during our anniversary celebration in the STATION-Berlin, which was attended by 1600 people.

The exhibition about the history
of the FDST at the STATION-Berlin
But what has this to do with doing public disability history? First of all the history of the FDST is part of the general history of people with disability. Since many of them receive support of organisations like the FDST or are at least in touch with them, their life is heavily affected by developments in the social sector. Thus by tracing down the history of the FDST we also provide valuable insights in the social attitude towards people with disability. And we show how economic, political or social transformations influence the work of a foundation like the FDST. On the other hand exploring and mediating our history had a second aim: By doing so we wanted to give everybody – people with disabilities, employees, scientists or the general public – the opportunity to inform themselves about our past. That means that we got in direct contact with people with disability – for example during our lectures. Thereby we had the chance to share opinions about the history of our organisation as well as of the situation of people with disability in 20th and 21th century Germany. In this way we offered our clients or guests with disability an access to their own history – an attempt to empower them as interpreters of disability history in their own rights. And by the way: Mediating the results of our research the way we did takes the demand of public historians seriously to restart getting in touch with a broad audience outside the scientific world.7 For us this was also one of several approaches to give everyone a chance to participate in our anniversary year – whether with or without a disability.

Doing disability history is challenging, but also enriching. In our case we understand the organisation’s history mainly as a historical resource that gives us orientation in the present as well as a chance for giving people with disability the opportunity to get in contact with us and learn more about the organisation and its past.

Recommended Citation:
Sebastian Weinert (2017): Mediating Disability History to a broader audience: An Institutional Approach. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 2.

[1] See Blackie, Daniel: Doing Public Disability History, in: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 16. Online: http://www.public-disabilityhistory.org/2016/09/doing-public-disability-history.html.
[2] See Manfred Rasch: Der Unternehmer Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck. Eine Skizze. Essen: Klartext 2016.
[3] See Golka, Thomas/Wieder, Horst: Geschichte der Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung 1916-1991, Berlin: Selbstverlag 1991.
[4] See e. g. Waldschmidt, Anne/Lingelbach, Gabriele (Hrsg.): Kontinuitäten, Zäsuren, Brüche? Lebenslagen von Menschen mit Behinderungen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main: Campus 2016.
[5] See Weinert, Sebastian: 100 Jahre Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung 1916-2016, Berlin: Selbstverlag 2016.
[6] See Scharf, Bertold: Tagungsbericht: Kontinuitäten, Zäsuren, Brüche? Die Lebenslage von Menschen mit Behinderungen in Deutschland nach 1945: Periodisierungsfragen der deutschen Zeitgeschichte aus interdisziplinärer Perspektive, 20.03.2014 – 22.03.2014 Köln, in: H-Soz-Kult, 02.09.2014. Online: www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-5520.
[7] See WIR-Magazin (2016) 1. Online: http://www.fdst.de/w/files/wir_pdf/wir_2016_01_160208_final_tags.pdf.