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SIBONUKUHLE NDLOVU | Rekindle the spirit of Ubuntu for inclusive African communities

All human beings should live together harmoniously

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

In a disturbing incident that was captured on video last month, a 13-year-old patient with a disability was assaulted by two security guards at a KwaZulu-Natal hospital. In the video that went viral on social media, a patient can be heard crying while two security guards are standing next to his hospital bed.

The implicated guards have since been dismissed by their private employer and the patient moved to another hospital. However, the emotional and psychological scars remain deep, and will take a long time to heal. The security guards’ actions fly in the face of the spirit of Ubuntu.

Akusilima sindlebende kwaso’ is a common isiZulu proverb I grew up knowing from my community, which means that those with disabilities are appreciated in the families and communities they belong to.

This proverb is also common even in Zimbabwe and other countries that share some of the indigenous languages under the Nguni group, such as isiZulu and IsiNdebele.

Appreciating people with disabilities in African societies is one of the many ways to express Ubuntu; an innate recognition that everyone is human, regardless of their disability challenges. The spirit of Ubuntu is the lifeblood and social fabric of African society, a natural but indispensable attribute that recognises that all human beings should live together harmoniously, with every person accorded the same respect and dignity.  

In Africa, the respect and dignity accorded to people with disabilities goes a step further. It is in the African spirit that people with disabilities are believed to have special gifts they are endowed with. In Botswana, for example, people with low vision are said to possess an extraordinary sense of intelligence. It is believed that by virtue of having an extra sense, they do well in learning at school. Indeed, when I taught learners with visual impairments in special schools for such learners, most of them were extraordinarily intellectually capable. 

Botho, which is a Setswana word for Ubuntu, is also the organising principle in which people with disabilities are appreciated and accepted in Botswana. ‘The umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ African saying binds African societies together and promotes the culture of respect and appreciation of all members of the society, regardless of their disability challenges.

However, for this inherent virtue to continue thriving and surviving, it is important to note that the situation has evolved and changed over time.

With the advent of the third industrial and other subsequent revolutions came the capitalist society, in which everyone had to work in factories to produce goods and other commodities. This led to the emergence of individualism in Africa, which places emphasis on the elevation of individual interests above the wellbeing and welfare of the collective.

As the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described it, individualism is “a kind of moderate selfishness that disposed humans to be concerned only with their small circle of family and friends”. Along with the overweening pursuit of wealth, it is the single most divisive thing that erodes the collective spirit of a community and Ubuntu.

With that, disability began to be redefined according to terms that are foreign to Africa. It meant incapacity, incapability and inability – something less-productivity. 

Those with disabilities were viewed as nothing more than children, as if they were not contributing productively to the economy of the day. And with that came the diagnosis of their disabilities to ‘correct’ their incapacities.

Corrective measures were taken, sometimes without consent. Micro-aggression is projected towards those with disabilities as they are viewed as helpless. Research shows that disabled people are more likely than nondisabled people to experience violent victimisation. And serious violent crimes such as sexual assault, aggravated assault, and robbery were even more disproportionate, more than three times as likely to impact disabled people.

Marketisation of the labour force not only led to stigmatisation of people with disabilities, but it also contributed to their discrimination and marginalisation.

The century-old positive African view of people with disabilities began to be silenced. The question then arises: How can a Western scholar write about African disability, writing from a Eurocentric view but writing it for Africans? That’s where the issue of negative conception and exclusion of people with disability arose from. It is the reason students with disabilities are excluded in institutions of higher education.

I yearn for a return to the basics, when we can see people with disability as an integral part of our communities and the wider society.

The day when we can embrace them for their unique talents and as equals. We need to understand that the Ubuntu that informed disability got lost along the way as alien cultures began to dominate the African culture.

I yearn for the Ubuntu that I grew up knowing; for it is the single most indispensable virtue that can help restore our inclusiveness and collective spirit that make us thrive togetherness.


  • Ndlovu is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg

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