Ubuntu: A Black Radical Demand for Reparations



It does not need a deep understanding in Southern African epistemologies to realize that the term “Ubuntu” has been strongly diluted from its powerful political and historic meanings. However, having a text that not only reasserts its radical metaphysics and its transgenerational dimension, but also uses it to build a political advocacy for reparations in post-apartheid South Africa required someone of the talent of Panashe Chigumadzi who shares her words with us here.

Chigumadzi Funambulist
Panashe Chigumadzi during her ZAM Nelson Mandela Lecture 2023, “Nixolisa Ngani? With what are you apologising?” / Photo by Elzo Bonam, courtesy of ZAM Magazine.

Akukho zinyane lemvubu ladliwa zingwenya kwaceba iziziba. It never happens that the hippo’s calf is eaten by crocodiles and the pool remains clear.


And yet, “the great crocodile,” PW Botha, the former apartheid-era prime minister of South Africa, defied three subpoenas to testify at the post-apartheid Truth Reconciliation Commission (TRC). On the opening day of his contempt trial, Botha—who refused to give any information about the State Security Council his presidency set up to kill, torture, and detain of thousands—told reporters, “I only apologize for my sins before God.”

Apartheid’s victims wanted the truth. One million black viewers made the weekly “TRC: Special Report” the highest-rated public affairs broadcast at the time.

Apartheid’s beneficiaries wouldn’t confront the truth. Few white South Africans watched “TRC: Special Report.” They didn’t want to hear anything of it either. By February 1997, white radio listeners who objected to hearing TRC-related stories caused a broadcast rescheduling to non-prime-time hours, after 8 PM, “when most of the farmers are no longer listening.”

Apartheid’s architects wouldn’t confess the truth. FW De Klerk, the last president of apartheid, apologized for apartheid, but pleaded his innocence to the “the authorization of assassination, murder, torture, rape, and assault.” Like many other architects of apartheid, De Klerk’s predecessor P.W. Botha refused to give testimony in exchange for amnesty. Twelve years later, the crocodile “died at home, peacefully.”

Describing the rationale for amnesty at the TRC as based in Ubuntu, its chair, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “African jurisprudence is restorative rather than retributive.”

And yet, the very same African restorative justice declares, “akukho zinyane lemvubu ladliwa zingwenya kwacweba isiziba.” This is to say, Ubuntu’s radical ethical demand for reparations refuses amnesty as accountability.

Among Southern, Eastern, and Central Africa’s Bantu language speakers, Ubuntu is the African philosophy of ethical collective personhood embodied in the dictum, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye bantu.” With dangerous consequences, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye bantu” is often mistranslated as an analogue of Western enlightenment humanisms as “I am because we are.”