UBUNTU AND THE LAW IN SOUTH AFRICA*
The new constitutional dispensation, like the idea of freedom in South Africa, is also not free
of scepticism. Many a time when crime and criminal activity are rife, sceptics would lament
the absence of ubuntu in society and attribute this absence to what they view as the
permissiveness which is said to have been brought about by the Constitution with its
entrenched Bill of Rights.
In my view, there is a patriotic obligation on all of us not to allow our Constitution and the
idea of respect for human rights and dignity to slide into such disrepute.
Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity and (attempt to) demonstrate the irony that the
absence of the values of ubuntu in society that people often lament about and attribute to the
existence of the Constitution with its demands for respect for human rights when crime
becomes rife, are the very same values that the Constitution in general and the Bill of Rights
in particular aim to inculcate in our society.
Secondly, against the background of the call for an African renaissance that has now become
topical globally, I would like to demonstrate the potential that traditional African values of
ubuntu have for influencing the development of a new South African law and jurisprudence. I
would like you to view this presentation as a contribution to the early debates on the revival
of African jurisprudence as part of the total or broader process of the African renaissance.
The concept of ubuntu and the social values it represents
* Paper delivered at the first Colloquium Constitution and Law held at Potchefstroom on 31 October
1997. This paper was first published by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in their Seminar Report of the
Colloquium (Johannesburg 1998).
The concept ubuntu, like many African concepts, is not easily definable. To define
an African notion in a foreign language and from an abstract as opposed to a concrete
approach to defy the very essence of the African world-view and can also be particularly
elusive. I will therefore not in the least attempt to define the concept with precision. That
would in any case be unattainable. In one’s own experience, ubuntu it seems, is one of those
things that you recognise when you see it. I will therefore only put forward some views
which relate to the concept itself and like many who wrote on the subject, I can never claim
the last word.
In an attempt to define it, the concept has generally been described as a world-view of
African societies and a determining factor in the formation of perceptions which influence
It has also been described as a philosophy of life, which in its most fundamental sense
represents personhood, humanity, humaneness and morality; a metaphor that describes group
solidarity where such group solidarity is central to the survival of communities with a
scarcity of resources, where the fundamental belief is that motho ke motho ba batho ba
bangwe/umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu which, literally translated, means a person can only be a
person through others.2 In other words the individual’s whole existence is relative to that of
the group: this is manifested in anti-individualistic conduct towards the survival of the group
if the individual is to survive. It is a basically humanistic orientation towards fellow beings.
Kunene,3 however, warns against a superficial perception of the concept:
For indeed, it is not enough to refer to the meaning and profound concept of
ubuntuism merely as a social ideology. Ubuntu is the very quality that
guarantees not only a separation between men, women and the beast, but the
very fluctuating gradations that determine the relative quality of that essence.
It is for that reason that we prefer to call it the potential of being human.
1 Broodryk J Ubuntu in South Africa (LLD thesis UNISA 1997).
2 Mbigi L and Maree J Ubuntu: The Spirit of African Transformation Management (Sigma Press
Johannesburg 1995) 1-7.
3 Kunene M "The Essence of being Human: An African Perspective? in Inaugural Lecture 16 August
Such potential, he states can fluctuate from the lowest to the highest level during one’s life-
time, where there is constant harmony between the physicality and spirituality of life. That
harmony is achieved through close and sympathetic social relations within the group - thus
the notion umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu/motho ke motho ka batho ba bangwe, which also
implies that during one’s life-time, one is constantly challenged by others, practically, to
achieve self-fulfilment through a set of collective social ideals. Because the African world-
view cannot be neatly categorised and defined, any definition would only be a simplification
of a more expansive, flexible and philosophically accommodative idea.
The meaning of the concept however, becomes much clearer when its social value is
highlighted. Group solidarity, conformity, compassion, respect, human dignity, humanistic
orientation and collective unity have, among others been defined as key social values of
ubuntu. Because of the expansive nature of the concept, its social value will always depend
on the approach and the purpose for which it is depended on. Thus its value has also been
viewed as a basis for a morality of co-operation, compassion, communalism and concern for
the interests of the collective respect for the dignity of personhood, all the time emphasising
the virtues of that dignity in social relationships and practices. For purposes of an ordered
society, ubuntu was a prized value, an ideal to which age-old traditional African societies
found no particular difficulty in striving for. This is so because these societies had their own
traditional institutions which functioned on well-suited principles and practices. Of course in
view of the influence and effect that various social forces had on African societies
throughout their historical development, today, the well-suitedness of those original
principles and practices is often questioned and in my view correctly so. Indeed, as Ali
... Africa can never go back completely to its pre-colonial starting point but
there may be a case for re-establishing contacts with familiar landmarks of
modernisation under indigenous impetus.4
1996 Durban 10.
4 Mbigi and Maree Ubuntu 5.
But then, how often have we not heard that the imposition and assimilation of even those
positive contributions of western notions, institutions and culture in African societies has not
been very successful? Is the explanation for that shallowness based, as Ali Mazrui further
that culture gap between the new structures and the ancient values, between
alien institutions and ancestral traditions?5
If there can be no reversion to the pre-colonial starting point, how then do we fill that
cultural gap, where required, if we have to meet the constitutional challenges of the law that
face us as South African lawyers today?
Ubuntu and South African law
Much as South Africa is a multicultural society, indigenous law has not featured in the
mainstream of South African jurisprudence. Although an opportunity presented itself with
the reforms effected by the Special Courts for Blacks Abolition Act 34 of 1986 and the Law of
Evidence Amendment Act 4 of 1988 which among others, empowered mainstream courts to
take judicial cognisance of indigenous law, not much has come of that either. Without a
doubt, some aspects or values of ubuntu are universally inherent to South Africa’s multi
cultures. It would be anomalous if dignity, humaneness, conformity, respect, etc. foreign to
any of South Africa’s cultural systems. It is however, in respect of methods, approaches,
emphasis, attitude etc. of those and other uncommon aspects and values of ubuntu that the
concept is unique to African culture. It is thus in respect of those unique aspects that there
has now arisen a need to harness them carefully, consciously, creatively, strategically and
with ingenuity so that age-old African social innovations and historical cultural experiences
are aligned with present day legal notions and techniques if the intention is to create a
legitimate system of law for all South Africans.
Such inclusivity is important for enhancing the legitimacy of a jurisprudence which is
required to manage the challenges that constitutionalism poses for us. There is therefore
much room for law reform by careful prioritisation of current socio-legal problems and
through appropriate research methods, find pragmatic and integrated solutions, as part of a
new law management strategy.
The Interim Constitution6 clearly set the tone for socio-political transformation in South
Ubuntu and the Constitution
Africa. That constitution itself created,
... a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society, characterised
by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the
recognition of peaceful co-existence ... for all South Africans.7
In order to realise that peaceful co-existence, the Interim Constitution recognised that despite
the injustices of the past, there is need for understanding, not vengeance. A need for
reparation, not retaliation. In addition that constitution recognised the need for ubuntu and
Thus in its preamble the Interim Constitution declared:
Whereas there is a need to create a new order in which all South Africans will
be entitled to a common South African Citizenship ... where there is equality
between men and women and people of all races so that all citizens shall be
able to enjoy and exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms,
... it is necessary for such purposes that provision should be made for the
promotion of national unity and the restructuring and continued governance of
5 Mbigi and Maree Ubuntu 5.
6 The Constitution of South Africa Act 200 of 1993.
7 Provision on National Unity and Reconciliation termed the postscript of the Constitution of South
Africa Act 200 of 1993.
South Africa ...
The Interim Constitution therefore established a new restructured socio-political order of
national unity, with a common citizenship; a new constitutional order where the Constitution
reigns supreme, where all and not only some shall enjoy and exercise their fundamental
rights and freedoms. However, at times when violent crime is rife, distraught members of
society decry not only the loss of ubuntu, but particularly the permissiveness of
constitutionalism and the idea of rights protection as is demonstrated by this expression of
In Africa we respect the dead. That is why we believe in badimo. [However]
our [new] Constitution, with all its good intent, allows people to disrespect
funerals ... [And] if, as it seems, our constitution does not have any mechanism
to arrest cancerous barbarism and restore moral values then it is a worthless
piece of paper which is set to do more harm to us as a people than even the
The Interim Constitution, however did not establish a new free-for-all anarchist society
where rights and freedoms are exercised freely with total disregard. The basic values of the
Interim Constitution as a whole, the clearly identifiable values in the preamble and the
postscript create a value system in terms of which rights and freedoms are to be claimed and
exercised. Finally aware of the potential for disorder that the guarantee of rights and
freedoms may have after decades of oppression and repression, these guiding values aim to
set the tone for peaceful co-existence. The preamble specifically required the need for
ubuntu but not victimisation. The values of ubuntu are therefore an integral part of that
value system which had been established by the Interim Constitution. Where it concerns the
exercise and enjoyment of individual human rights and freedoms the Interim Constitution
also did not establish a system where these rights and freedoms are exercised and claimed
willy-nilly despite the claims and existence of concomitant rights of others. The limitations
8 Mogale C “We are Breeding a Generation of Scum” City Press 25 October 1997 3 saying further
“Few things are as hurtful and embarrassing as thuggery ... at funerals, where gun-toting yahoos ... turn
clause9 which was a rights - balancing mechanism, made specific provision for
criteria to be considered when conflicting rights and interests are claimed. It was therefore
also a mechanism for peaceful co-existence between individual claimants.
The constitutional principles in the Interim Constitution, resulting from a solemn pact among
negotiators at Kempton Park insisted that the new Constitution take its cue from the Interim
Constitution. Not unlike the latter, the new Constitution is also the supreme law of the land
and also contains an entrenched Bill of Rights, which section 7(1) describes as the
“cornerstone of democracy in South Africa”. The founding values of the democracy
established by this new Constitution, viz. human dignity, equality, promotion of human rights
and freedoms and multi-party democracy to ensure accountability, responsiveness and
openness and the rule of law, arguably coincide with some key values of ubuntu(ism), e.g.
human dignity itself, respect, inclusivity, compassion, concern for others, honesty and
conformity. At the same time the ubuntu values of collective unity and group solidarity can
translate into the spirit of national unity demanded of the new South African society.
The collective unity, group solidarity and conformity tendencies of ubuntu can surely be
harnessed to promote a new patriotism and personal stewardship so crucial (for a number of
reasons) in the development of a young democracy. A number of similar survival issues in
the law itself brought about by the challenges of constitutionalism, are easily identifiable. It
is around these that law reform can harness the spirit of ubuntu(ism) to achieve appropriate
responses to the demands of constitutionalism.
Whether it is for purposes of promoting the values of the Constitution by translating them
into more familiar ubuntu values and tendencies, or whether it is for purposes of harnessing
some unique ubuntu value, tendency, approach and/or strategy, or further whether it is for
purposes of promoting and/or aligning these aspects of ubuntu with core constitutional
demands ubuntu(-ism), it seems, can play an important role in the creation of responsive legal
institutions for the advancement of constitutionalism and a culture of rights in South Africa.
the very cornerstone of African respect (funerals) into shame ... while a whole nation is watching.”
9 S 33 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 200 of 1993.
Ubuntu and indigenous law
For the first time in the history of its recognition in South Africa, indigenous law and its
application now has what can be viewed as constitutional status. Section 21(1) taking its cue
from the Interim Constitution recognises the indigenous law institution of traditional leaders
and the systems of indigenous law that they observed. Courts are specifically enjoined to
apply this law where it is applicable, and do so subject to the Constitution and applicable
The Constitution therefore seeks to bring an end to the marginal development of customary
law principles. It also promotes the need to address the application of those outdated and
distorted customary law institutions by requiring that they be brought in line with the values
of the Constitution.
Indigenous law which is the formally recognised positive law, is replete with institutions
which deserve to be discarded or re-aligned and developed. Ubuntu(-ism), which is central to
age-old African custom and tradition however, abounds with values and ideas which have
the potential of shaping not only current indigenous law institutions, but South African
jurisprudence as a whole. Examples that come to mind are:
- the original conception of law perceived not as a tool for personal defence, but
as an opportunity given to all to survive under the protection of the order of
the communal entity;
- communalism which emphasises group solidarity and interests generally, and
all rules which sustain it, as opposed to individual interests, with its likely
utility in building a sense of national unity among South Africans;
- the conciliatory character of the adjudication process which aims to restore
peace and harmony between members rather than the adversarial approach
which emphasises retribution and seems repressive. The lawsuit is viewed as
a quarrel between community members and not as a conflict; The importance
of group solidarity requires restoration of peace between them;
- the importance of public ritual and ceremony in the communication of
information within the group;
- the idea that law, experienced by an individual within the group, is bound to
individual duty as opposed to individual rights or entitlement. Closely related
is the notion of sacrifice for group interests and group solidarity so central to
- the importance of sacrifice for every advantage or benefit, which has
significant implicants for reciprocity and caring within the communal entity.
The shared values of ubuntu(-ism) and the Constitution and in addition, the significant and
effective approaches, methods, techniques and strategies of the former are likely also to
become central in shaping and formulating a new indigenous law and jurisprudence that meet
the demands and challenges of constitutionalism for indigenous law. How exactly these
values can be utilised to inform jurisprudential responses to the current challenges brought
about by competing demands in a complex and rapidly changing South Africa, will require
close examination of current shortcomings of existing institutions, their mechanisms and
Section 39(2) of the Constitution provides that in the interpretation of the Bill of Rights or
any legislation, courts have a specific injunction to develop indigenous law taking into
account the spirit, purport and object of the Bill of Rights. Since the values of the
Constitution and at least the key values of ubuntu(-ism) do seem to converge, indigenous law
may need to be aligned with these converging values. It is however, not only the system of
10 S 21(3).
indigenous law which need this re-alignment. South African law as a whole is constantly
placed under the scrutiny of the constitution. The values of ubuntu can therefore provide it
with the necessary indigenous impetus.
When Chief Justice Mahomed addressed the World Jurist Association Seminar in Cape Town
in February of this year, he summed up the significance of African values:
... the ageless emotional and cultural maturity of Africa is less dramatic but
not less significant or potentially powerful in influencing, in shaping and in
formulating the constitutional ethos which must inform and define judicial
responses to jurisprudential challenges arising from competing demands in a
complex and rapidly changing society. That maturity expresses itself through
a collectivist [emotion] of communal caring and humanism, and of reciprocity
These African values which manifest themselves in ubuntu/botho are in consonance with the
values of the Constitution generally and those of the Bill of Rights in particular. The human
rights violations and indignities of the past have not served legitimacy and respect for South
African law well.
The advent of constitutionalism has seen unconstitutional laws and actions invalidated and
set aside. Institutions of democracy which had been created by the Interim Constitution to
advance a culture of democracy and human rights have also swung into much action. Less
than four years of constitutionalism has however not and could not have achieved the
necessary popular understanding and appreciation for the varied implications of
constitutionalism for South Africa. Nor did it and could it have restored fully the dignity of
our legal system. And, in the true spirit of ubuntu/batho, no one, not the least lawyers from
all walks of life can afford to sit back and watch our new-found constitutionalism slide into
disrepute. Quite obviously, the complete dignification of South African law and
jurisprudence would require considerable re-
alignment of the present state of our value
systems. We will thus have to be ingenious in finding and or creating law reform
programmes, methods, approaches and strategies that will enhance adaptation to such
The values of ubuntu, I would like to believe, if consciously harnessed can become central to
a process of harmonising all existing legal values and practices with the Constitution.
Ubuntu can therefore become central to a new South African jurisprudence and to the revival
of sustainable African values as part of the broader process of the African renaissance.
Broodryk J Ubuntu in South Africa (LLD thesis UNISA 1997)
Kunene M “The Essence of being Human: An African Perspective” Inaugural lecture 16
August 1996 Durban 10
Mbigi L and Maree J Ubuntu: The Spirit of African Transformation Management (Sigma
Press Johannesburg 1995) 1-7
Mogale C “We are Breeding a Generation of Scum” City Press 25 October 1997 3
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 200 of 1993
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 108 of 1996
Law of Evidence Amendment Act 4 of 1988
Special Courts for Blacks Abolition Act 34 of 1986