What Ubuntu, Madiba, and Apartheid Teach us About Racism

19 Mar 2021 7:32 PM | Sarah Elkington (Administrator)

Introduction: The Power of Systemic Beliefs

History teaches us that prejudice in general, and racism specifically, cause significant harm to any society. In this brief article, I will cite some of the valuable lessons we learn from the African philosophy of Ubuntu and its intersection with Apartheid in South Africa. As we discuss these lessons, I hold up the life of President Nelson Mandela (Madiba) as an exemplar of the power of Ubuntu to change society when the actions and words of leaders model it. I have written more extensively and technically on this issue, and I cite some of those articles and chapters in the “References” section.

Lesson #1: In systemic prejudice, both the perpetrator and the victim become dehumanized.

In the diagram, we suggest that we only see the actions of other people. What we do not see is their beliefs, values, and attitudes, which leads to their actions. In South Africa, Apartheid was built upon a belief system that suggested that a certain group of people were not people by virtue of their race. This belief led to the “white” South Africans de-valuing anyone who was not “white;” this de-valuing then led to attitudes of hatred, hubris, and scorn. Horrific actions arose from this trilogy of beliefs, (de)valuation and attitudes. In their bid to dehumanize their fellow “non-white” human beings, many of the “white” perpetrators also lost their humanity, as evidenced in the articulations at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Lesson #2: We need to change the belief system, and Ubuntu is a good substitute.

The dominant mindset in the West is Descartian: “I think; therefore, I am.” This is highly individualistic and focuses on the self as the most essential determinant of personhood.

The dominant mindset in Apartheid was: “I am; therefore, you are not.” This is a highly exclusive mindset that believes that a particular group of people are not people and have no rights to personhood.

Ubuntu states: “I am a person by virtue of other persons.” My personhood is defined in reference to your personhood, which places immediate and overt value on every life – in Ubuntu – every life matters. Another way to frame Ubuntu is “when you win, I win, and when you hurt, I hurt.” Ubuntu is a belief system that leads to valuing all people, which in turn leads to a positive attitude about the personhood of all people, and which naturally leads to different actions. Nelson Mandela epitomized this belief system, and it guided the way he interacted with all people. Please refer to my book chapter listed in the “References” section for more information.

Lesson #3: Once we reorient our core belief from Descartian to Ubuntu we must act!

We highlighted previously that our beliefs lead to our values which leads to our attitudes which in turn informs our actions. If we shift to an Ubuntu mindset and belief system, namely that I am a person by virtue of other persons, then we need to support that belief with concrete actions! These types of actions early in post-Apartheid South Africa made a difference for many:

  • 1.       Cultivate friendships with people who you feel are “other.”
  • 2.       Ask meaningful, thoughtful questions to gain understanding and to cultivate empathy.
  • 3.       Listen actively and listen humbly!
  • 4.       Invest in socio-economic upliftment to “re-humanize” everyone impacted by the system.

Lesson #4: We need excellent exemplary humble leadership to model the way!

Perhaps the most powerful expression of Ubuntu from President Mandela was the way in which he brought calm and equity to the broken landscape of South Africa. He did this through his words, through his actions, and through the use of symbols. All that he expected of others, he himself modelled. This is evident when you watch his speeches or read about the steps he took after being released from prison and being elected as President. We need leaders today who choose to model the way by defining their humanity in terms of Ubuntu, leaders who clearly show us: “I am because you are.”

  Rob Elkington Ph.D. 



Elkington, R. L., (2020).Ubuntu as Ancient Wisdom for Modern Ethics: A Systems Thinking Ecosophy for the 21st Century Denudation of Integrated World Capitalism. Journal of Leadership Studies Symposium on Ancient Wisdom for Modern Leadership Ethics.

Elkington. R., Tuleja. E., (2017). How the Communal Philosophies of Ubuntu in Africa and Confucius Thought in China Might Enrich Western Notions of Leadership (Book Chapter for ILA Emerald Publications: Global and Culturally Diverse Leaders and Leadership. Jean Lau Chin, Joseph E. Trimble, and Joseph Garcia, Editors.).


Elkington, R.L., (2020). "Ancient Wisdom for Teaching Ethical Leadership in Higher: Ubuntu and the Ethic of Ecosophy." Higher Education in Transformation Symposium (https://cherpp.ca/index.php/events/) (Postponed due to COVID-19)

Tolstikov-Mast, Y., Lyndon, A. E., Hurwitz, M., Hurwitz, S., Melles, A., Elkington, R. (2019). Diverse Meanings of Followership and Following: Recognizing Uniqueness in Multicultural Contexts. 21st Annual International Leadership Association Conference, October 2019.

Elkington. R. (2016). Ubuntu and Empathy in Leadership. Keynote presentation, Queens School of Business Centre for Social Innovation

Elkington. R.,Tuleja, E. (2016). The Contributions of Ubuntu and Confucianism to Western Notions of Leadership. 18th Annual International Leadership Association (ILA) in Atlanta, Georgia.




Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software