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Ubuntu, African Epistemology, and Development

Swanson, D. M.



Handel Kashope Wright

Ali A. Abdi


This chapter is a discussion in three parts and a closing argument. It begins with a discussion on development and references some of the philosophical difficulties with its Western-inspired conceptualization and ideological deployment in the African context. It discusses the implications for Africa globally and for a notion of development in terms of a commitment to deep democracy. This is situated in
tension with (mis)conceptions of African epistemology from Western perspectives. It responds by offering productive possibilities for an African epistemology of Ubuntu in its contribution to development as freedom in Africa.

The second part addresses in more detail the Southern African indigenous philosophy of Ubuntu, providing it with a working definition and situating it within African epistemology and the socio-political contexts of its invocation. It raises critical concerns about Ubuntu’s embrace in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its promulgation as an ideology within the nation-building project of post-apartheid South Africa. Such concerns are referenced with respect to Ubuntu’s formulation within the advocacies of cultural nationalism. Nevertheless, the discussion commits to perspectives of possibility towards disrupting neoliberalism and decolonizing hegemonic meanings, and advances a debate towards transformation and transcendence within a post-apartheid context.
The third part follows on from the arguments in the second, which set the Ubuntu, African Epistemology, and Development Contribution, Contradictions, Tensions, and Possibilities stage for a narrative journeying of a more personal nature. It offers a reflexive account of how Ubuntu was used as a guiding principle for engagement in field-
work and the structuring of a qualitative research methodology. The narrative tone is somewhat different from that of the first two parts, which offer critical perspectives within a broad ideological and socio-political discussion. The third part moves from a national level, as set in the second part, to a local level. It locates more personal interactions and a search for a “humble togetherness” within the context of a township school in South Africa. This discussion closes with a somewhat cautionary note on how a philosophy such as Ubuntu might be taken up in a political institutional forum that has unwanted implications, but it also advocates for Ubuntu in providing legitimizing spaces for transcendence of injustice and a more democratic, egalitarian, and ethical engagement of human beings in relationship with one another. In this sense, Ubuntu offers hope and possibility in its contribution to human rights. In closing, the various points of argument discussed in the three parts are brought together. The importance of justice-oriented discourses and action in respect of the African continent is emphasized in relation to the interconnectedness between African epistemology, (and in particular, Ubuntu), human rights and freedom, democracy and development. It is argued that African epistemology and Ubuntu have a role in (re)conceptualizing development as freedom in terms of social
democratic ideals, rather than as an instrument for advancing the interests of global capitalism, thereby offering a more sustainable hope for Africa.


Swanson, D. M. (2012). Ubuntu, African Epistemology, and Development. In H. K. Wright, & A. A. Abdi (Eds.), The Dialectics of African Education and Western Discourses (27-52). New York: Peter Lang

Online Publication Date Mar 1, 2012
Publication Date Mar 1, 2012
Deposit Date Jan 5, 2023
Pages 27-52
Series Title Black Studies and Critical Thinking
Series Number Vol 21
Book Title The Dialectics of African Education and Western Discourses
Chapter Number 3
ISBN 9781433113796
Keywords African Education, African Studies
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