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)


  1. A great reflective account Maria. Indeed, if we are not careful, there is academic colonisation where one is supposed to published in the 'Western journals and books' in order to be a real academic. This mindset has to be rewired so that both global south and global north spaces need to respect each other in terms of research output and publications.

  2. I think there has also been a failure from more established academics, especially outside of disability studies, to challenge the ways in which we think about 'impact' when we work in the global south. It begs the question for who and what we are doing research?