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Ubuntu & African Management
April 23, 2015

Does an Ubuntu-inspired African management style exist? Present in sub-Saharan Africa, this notion originates from South Africa, and embodies a traditional saying.


Ubuntu – “I am because we are…”

On December 13, 2013, during the funeral eulogies in memory of Nelson Mandela at Soweto Stadium, Barack Obama extolled his virtues in these terms:

“Nelson Mandela understood the subtle links between human mind. In South Africa, there is a word –Ubuntu – which sums up Mandela’s greatest gift, that of having recognised that we’re all bound by invisible links, that humanity is based on the same foundations, that we fulfil ourselves by giving ourselves to others and taking care of their needs. We will never know to what extent this was one of his innate characteristics or something forged in a dark and lonely prison cell. However, we will remember his actions, large and small – such as when he invited his jailers as guests of honour on his investiture day, the day he put on the Springboks shirt for a rugby match or when he transformed his family’s sorrow by launching an appeal to combat HIV/AIDS. These are just some of the gestures which demonstrated the depth of his empathy and understanding. Not only did he embody Ubuntu but he also helped millions of others to discover this truth within them”.

But what is the power of the Ubuntu philosophy actually based on?

How can we define the concept of Ubuntu?

This notion is found in sub-Saharan Africa and originates from South Africa, through the Zulu and xhosa languages. It embodies a traditional saying which means “I am what I am thanks to what we are”

Therefore, this concept is related to the idea of a sense of belonging and a united human community cooperating and sharing together. It’s a kind of interconnection governing human social relationships.

From Ubuntu, Mandela found inspiration for the values of “respect, helpfulness, sharing, community, generosity, trust and altruism”. He made it into a magical word possessing “so many meanings” and told a story to illustrate this concept: “A traveller passing through a country, who stops in an African village would not need to ask for food or water. Wherever he stops, the people would give him something to eat and drink and try to entertain him.

This example stresses the notion of solidarity, although “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question is therefore: what are you going to do to enable the community around you to move forward thanks to this?”. It means giving life a meaning but also a meaning to each person’s role in the community, and embodying this concept on a daily basis.

When Ubuntu influences African management styles

Solidarity, unity, empathy, understanding and taking account of others are all notions advocated by Ubuntu and which are strongly present in South African society. But what form does this concept take as part of the South African management style?

Three converging points help us to understand the way it works and its influence on basic management practices in African companies:

  • Relationship to others or collective solidarity: According to Ubuntu, a person exists in a group if he helps its members to improve and achieve their potential. Paternalistic-deterministic leadership is used to develop the relationship to others and to promote each person’s place within the group. Authority comes from age and not from the intellectual and social status of the person concerned.
  • Relationship to time: “Time is money” is a mindset which exists in South African companies but over and above the commercial aspects this is not an entirely natural way of thinking because they also consider that “time forges social links”.
  • The decision-making process: Decisions are taken collectively and based on consensus. Differing viewpoints are collectively and discreetly managed to avoid direct confrontations. It’s important to ensure that no member of the group is singled out that no one loses face or honour.

Consequently, the solidarity advocated by the Ubuntu philosophy is central to a whole series of values, standards and codes which profoundly influence managerial practices.

An expatriate executive in sub-Saharan Africa who takes account of this notion in his dealings with others has a better chance of meeting these objectives, but over and above his professional goals he can also discover a new way of viewing and understanding his new cultural environment. This notion is difficult to explain with words as it’s part of a special lifestyle based on the importance attached to the community. It is also doubtless very difficult to export.

After having influenced a great African leader, Ubuntu is today providing the inspiration for a new management method based on otherness, dialogue, trust, but above all from a cultural notion inherited from Africa’s ancestors, as Evalde Mutabazi explains in his theories on the circulatory management model. African companies are in the process of reviewing their management methods, casting aside management models which had been imported since the colonial period, and laying the foundations for a leadership style based on traditional values. Drawing closer to basic cultural tenets to be in keeping with the way the company’s staff live is a good way to improve efficiency. Ubuntu is therefore emerging as one of the keys to understanding this renewal in African management practices.

Olga Ouedraogo, Akteos Consultant

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Alexandra Brougne

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