‘Fratelli Tutti’ and the African philosophical and political tradition of ubuntu

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09 January 2021

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” This saying exists in variant forms in Southern Africa’s bantu languages and translates as “A person is a person through other persons” or “I am because we are.”

Strikingly, Pope Francis’ Encyclical Fratelli Tutti contains an equivalent: “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person” (Paragraph 182). In other words, we are “brothers and sisters all” (8).

Francis credits South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others, as an inspiration for his encyclical (286). Tutu is the main proponent of Ubuntu, an African humanist philosophy based on a culture of sharing, openness, mutual dependence, dialogue, and interpersonal encounter. In Ubuntu, human existence reaches fulfilment as part of whole, society thrives on a common humanity, and forgiveness and reconciliation are prerequisites for preserving social harmony.

Francis’ twin ideas of fraternity and social friendship underscore the urgency of Ubuntu in our present-day context, where the fabric of humanity is riven by atavistic conflicts, ideological division, isolationist paranoia, and political polarization that take a catastrophic toll on the weak and vulnerable (18-19).

Devoid of a common uniting horizon, our ancestral fear of others drives us to build walls (26-27, 37, 41), thereby weakening our belonging to a common family and eviscerating our dream of a common purpose (30). Yet we are in this together (35); hence the imperative of building a community of solidarity and belonging.

“Mountains don’t meet, but people do,” says a Swahili proverb. A foundational premise of Ubuntu recognizes the centrality of encounter with the other. For Francis, fraternity rests on a culture of authentic encounters whose precondition is creative openness to the other (50).

Mutual openness, sadly, is assailed by a toxic digital communication saturated in social aggression, verbal violence, and ideological myopia. The result is a virtual closed circuit connected by shared fear and hatred for the other (42-46).

Francis proposes a new path toward a culture of fraternity founded on an “encounter of mercy” (83). Drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, he underscores the responsibility of love for others based on our shared Ubuntu. Such love builds a universal fraternity beyond considerations of its recipients’ status, gender, origin, or location (107, 121).

Universal fraternity entails suffering and requires time (48, 63) to forge a new social bond of solidarity that tends the vulnerability and fragility of others (66-69, 115). Francis likens this community to a polyhedral reality composed, not of isolated monads (111, 143-5), but as “a family that is stronger than the sum of small individual members” (78).

This reality exemplifies Ubuntu par excellence, because it is cemented by an inclusive social love that transcends narrow barriers, interests, and prejudices (83).

For Francis, the radical mutuality of Ubuntu is achievable through love without borders that transforms humanity into a community of neighbors without borders. Like Ubuntu philosophy, Francis argues for a social premium on rights and duties on account of the relationality of humanity, whose deepest manifestation is the ability to transcend the self and create a solidarity of service of others (87, 88, 111).

Francis’ social love goes beyond the immediacy of neighborliness; it is expansive and enriches the lives and existence of others. This kind of love manifests as hospitality, because it welcomes and values others for who they are (90-93), recognizes every human person as an “existential foreigner” with an incontrovertible moral claim on our care (97).

This expansive love forms the basis of an inclusive social friendship and borderless fraternity (94, 99). Far from being a levelling of difference or “false universalism” devoid of diversity (100), or worse a closed group of like-minded “associates,” fraternity, together with liberty and equality, offer a strong antidote to the virus of individualism (105).

If “I am because we are,” then true fraternity leaves no one behind (108), because we are saved together and are responsible for the life of all (137).

“If my neighbor’s house is on fire, I cannot sleep peacefully,” says another African proverb. In the spirit of Ubuntu, genuine fraternity eschews a “local narcissism” that constricts the mind and heart (146, 147). Authentic fraternity creates a family of nations, based on hospitality and gratuitousness (139, 141); it recognizes the rights of all peoples, communities, groups in private and social spheres (118, 124, 126).

In Francis’s moral vision, the litmus test of the authenticity of fraternity is whether it welcomes, protects, promotes, and integrates migrants, who come, not as nuisance or burden, but as gift and blessing (129, 133).

Fratelli Tutti highlights several features of politics that apply to Africa, where the current predominant models of political engagement fall short of Pope Francis’ ideal of politics as a vocation of charity.

Consider, for example, various pathologies of politics and economics across the globe today, such as populism, nationalism, liberalism and neoliberalism. Between the short-sightedness of populism, the reductionism of liberalism of society to the sum of individual interests (163) and the market hegemony of neoliberalism (168), the cost and casualties of our present political and economic arrangement are incalculable.

In 2009, the second African Synod stated categorically that “Africa needs saints in high political office: saintly politicians….” The Synod reserved unflattering words for Catholic politicians who fall short of this ideal. It said: “Many Catholics in high office have fallen woefully short in their performance in office. The Synod calls on such people to repent, or quit the public arena and stop causing havoc to the people and giving the Catholic Church a bad name.”

Pope Francis could have used the same words in Fratelli Tutti. For many people, politics resembles a “dirty game.” Even the word itself is “distasteful,” says Pope Francis (176), for many reasons.

Firstly, currently politics serves the needs and interests of elites and privileged classes and it excludes the poor and vulnerable (155). Secondly, politics eviscerates the word “people” of its meaning (157, 160). As in Ubuntu, “People,” Francis tell us, has a deeper and mystical meaning: dynamic, open-ended, diverse and open to difference — “people” isn’t just a transactional or logical category (158, 160, 163). Thirdly, politics has become a means for appropriating public resources and the perpetuation of autocrats in positions of power. This kind of political predation morphs into violence when selfishness or “concupiscence” becomes the overriding principle. In other words, politics becomes a concern “only with myself, my group, my own petty interests” (166) and people become expedient and expendable objects in the rabid pursuit of power.

Pope Francis affirms that we need new models of politics in the world. We need politics with a heart; a healthy politics — “a better kind of politics” (154, 177, 179). The model that Francis proposes offers a new and different option founded on charity (180, 186).

Politics that is animated by charity or political charity serves the common good not individual interests (180); works to provide a dignified life for all citizens through work (162); seeks “ways of building communities at every level of social life” (182); offers concrete solutions to pressing needs (183-4); eliminates social conditions that cause suffering (186); shows preferential option for “those in greatest need” (187); addresses anything that threatens or violates fundamental human rights (188); eliminates hunger and poverty (189, 172); stops the trafficking in human beings (190); and defends fundamental human rights (172).

This is neither empty rhetoric or utopian (190). It could become a reality in Africa and in the world if politics were conducted by people who love, not those who merely lust for power (193, 195) — in other words, people whom the African Synod calls “saintly politicians.” These kinds of politicians do not sacrifice people for personal interest and gains, but “make room for everyone,” create a world where “everyone has a place” (190) and people are recognised as “brothers and sisters.”

In this context, universal fraternity and social friendship connect the local and the global in a mutually beneficial relationship (142). Cultural rootedness presumes openness to an encounter with the other, either as peoples, cultures, or countries. Cultural hospitality engenders communion and mutual dependence of nations (146-9).

Besides encounter, another synonym of Ubuntu is dialogue. Dialogue promotes social friendship, because it respects the difference of opinions and points of view. Dialogue is open to others, recognizes our shared belonging, and is animated by the common pursuit of truth, the common good and service of the poor (205, 230). On it rests the possibility of peace based on truth (228).

This culture of dialogue and encounter transcends differences and divisions; yet it is inclusive of all and offers news possibilities and processes of lifestyle, social organization, and encounter (215-217; 231). As a form of kindness, social friendship makes a preference of love for the poor, vulnerable, and the least (224, 233, 235).

As mentioned, Ubuntu prioritizes forgiveness and reconciliation, especially when wrongdoing has sundered social harmony. Francis agrees: social friendship values forgiveness and reconciliation, not as mechanisms for forgetting or condoning injustice and oppression, but as means of resolving conflict through dialogue (241, 244, 246, 251). As Tutu says, the pursuit of justice has “no future without forgiveness.” (cf. 250, 252).

In every way, Fratelli Tutti aligns with the values and principles of Ubuntu.

Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator sj

Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator is a Jesuit priest, theologian, and president of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar.