Ubuntu – How the West can learn from Africa

Professor Mzamo Mangaliso from the UMass Amherst Isenberg School of Management offered a stimulating and fascinating presentation on the African concept of Ubuntu at a CIE community meeting. He began with a brief sketch of his personal journey which began as a student in apartheid South Africa who suffered because of his participation in protests, and ultimately led to getting his doctorate at UMass and joining the faculty here.


Management theory is largely based on Western 20th century scholars, particularly economists and classical sociologist and is rooted in the cultural values and beliefs of the West.  These theories assume that man acts primarily as a rational, utility maximizing being.  Professor Mangaliso argued that humans do not primarily act that way, especially in non-Western cultures. Humans are social beings who are influenced by emotions as well as by their gender, race, socio-economic status and the social fabric of their society.  Effective management needs to acknowledge the more complex set of factors.  The concept of Ubuntu has much to offer in broadening the approach to management. 


The languages of Southern Bantu Africa share linguistic roots in which a person is mtu and being human is ubu, which when put together generates Ubuntu –which translates roughly aspiring to the highest quality of being a human being. Put another way: a person only becomes a person through other persons. Yet Ubuntu isn’t simply collectivism, but rather a balance between the good of the community while still allowing for individual agency. Ubuntu embodies a pervasive pattern of caring, compassion, kindness and respect.


Mzamo articulated seven characteristics where Ubuntu contrasted with Western concepts related to management. He illustrated several of them. Decision making is primarily done by consensus with the goal being to listen to all and accommodate various perspectives thus leading to results that all can support. Time is not a finite commodity but is a healing factor to be used as needed in order to achieve consensus. Productivity is not limited to short-term economic benefit but is measured in the sustainable quality of the social group as much as the immediate output.


He concluded with a diagram contrasting convergence – meaning that all cultures converge on the Western norms – with divergence – meaning that cultures reject outside influence and maintain their own traditions. As an alternative there is a middle possibility that has been called “transvergence” or “crossvergence” where elements of both are merged together. Africans need to reach deeply into their cultures to find the roots of Ubuntu and bring it back to the surface to balance the layers of colonialism that have buried it. His final comment was the admonition that Ubuntu is not a fixed set of beliefs but rather is changing and should be a contested concept as we move into the future. Download an article on Ubuntu by Professor Mangaliso here.