Ubuntu LO13461

Mnr AM de Lange (AMDELANGE@gold.up.ac.za)
Mon, 5 May 1997 13:42:15 GMT+2

Dear organlearners,

Before we go any further, I want to thank my friend Ben Goslin for our
many hours of dialogue - he is a living oracle on African languages. I
also want to thank Cornie Malan (LO13336), Winfried Dressler (LO13361) and
Cheryl Fontini (LO13411) for keeping the topic alive.

Let us then begin.

UBUNTU (-) = LO (+)

This is my equation for today. The LO stands for Learning Organisation, a
concept created by Peter Senge. In what follows I do not want to denigrate
Senge's insights by showing you a different side of the same thing. I
rather hope to honour his contributions by putting it in a wider context,
hopefully an understandable one.

What then does 'ubuntu' stands for? We will come to that. But for the
moment - it is a Zulu word. The Zulu people live in South Africa. They
have a rich culture of which they are very proud. (Buthelezi is presently
a prominent Zulu leader and Shaka a historical one.) They wish to maintain
their own identity in the rainbow nation of South Africa. However, forces
in our country, cultivated in the former communist countries as well as
the back rooms of capitalists, try to pirate their destination.

The signs - and + have an important message. Whereas the LO culture is
emerging in the western world in the latter part of this century, the
ubuntu culture in Africa is now in grave danger of immerging. As I have
pointed out in earlier contributions on irreversible self-organisation
(deep creativity), a bifurcation can result in either an emergence or an

Bifurcations happen far from equilibrium as a result of a high rate of
entropy production (the 2nd law of Thermodynamics). The entropy produced
has to be manifested. It is first manifested as chaos of becoming. This
chaos has to be commuted globally (see my earlier contribution on
commutation.) The bifurcation results when the commutation paths become
saturated due to inherit restitivities. It is then when the second
manifestation of entropy takes place, namely order of being. Order has to
be commuted locally. It results in the complexification of organisation.
Thus the signs - and + indicate that we live in an era of immense changes.
We have to expect these changes when the global village opens up because
of the coercion between cultures.

President Nelson Mandela has become a symbolic figure (icon) for many
people on this globe. (Those of you old enough, may still remember Anwar
Sadat - he was of the same calibre.) Why? Because of the qualities which
he embodies. What make these qualities so attractive? Ubuntu.
Unfortunately, it is not enough to have merely a leader with ubuntu, as
present news on South Africa is demonstrating it. The whole nation of such
a leader has to strive for ubuntu. What then is ubuntu?

A literal translation of the word 'ubuntu' would be 'humanity'. Old
dictionaries will show that the word humanity in English had a very rich
meaning: 1 humans collectively, 2 human nature, 3 human quality, 4
educated, 5 civilised, 6 humane and dignified. But as the information
overload increases, the richness of the word has immerged in the ascending
order. The pollution of information leads to the trivialisation of
knowledge. Now only meaning 1 probably survives. However, the word
'ubuntu' still has all six meanings in ascending order of emergent
importance! The deepest or highest meaning of ubuntu is thus to become
humane while behaving with dignity. Let us not pollute and thus trivialise
this word ubuntu!

In Zulu the word ubuntu is derived through the prefix 'ubu-' from the word
'ntu' which means person. The singular form (prefix 'umu-') of person will
then be 'umuntu' and the plural (prefix 'aba-') will then be 'abantu'. (In
Swahili, a language closer to the ur or proto language of black peoples,
person='mutu' and persons='watu'. Swahili is spoken in central Africa. The
black people of South Africa has migrated from central Africa). The
prefixes 'umu-' and 'aba-' refers to material things. However, the prefix
'ubu' uncovers the spiritual or abstract field of a material object. Thus
'ubu'+'ntu' uncovers the spiritual field of humans in a collective sense.
(The Zulu 'ubu-' is the complexification of the Swahili 'u-' like the
'umu-' from 'mu-' or the 'aba-' from 'wa-'. Thus in Swahili humanity =
abstract + person, i.e. 'utu'='u'+'tu'.)

Now what is the connection between 'ubuntu' and LO? It is not a person
(umuntu) which has ubuntu, but persons (abantu) in a closely connected
sense. In other words, the SPIRITUAL quality ubuntu applies to a family, a
community or a tribe. In other words, it applies to people who commute in
an organisation! This is what makes our forum (listserver) so unique. I
see how many of you manifest ubuntu. Note that none of us can ever say: "I
have ubuntu". (I will explain it after the next paragraph.) But each of us
can say "I desire ubuntu". This desire is ESSENTIAL to ubuntu.
Furthermore, a person does not need permission to do something good in
terms of ubuntu. However, when a person does something bad in terms of
ubuntu, it is a clear sign that such a person does not have ubuntu.

The quality ubuntu is extremely rich in properties which we would qualify
with the English words humane and dignity. For humane our dictionaries may
list as synonyms: benevolent, benignant, charitable, clement,
compassionate, gentle, gracious, harmonious, humble, kind, loving,
merciful, positive, respect, sympathetic, tenderness. For dignity we have:
distinction, excellence, honesty, honourable, integrity, lofty,
trustworthy. (Compare the christian values which Jesus' apostles John,
Peter and Paul encouraged to these values of ubuntu and make your own

Take merely one ubuntu quality to see how it works. Take the first one
listed: benevolent. I can never say that I am benevolent. It take two
classes of persons for beneficence to EMERGE: the benefactors and the
beneficiaries. It is only an organisation, a collection of commuting
humans, which can be benevolent. It is not a property of some of its
individual members. (If it is, then ubuntu is dying.) The emergence of
beneficence does not entail that it will persist indefinitely. It can die
away (immergence) as surely as it has been born (emerged). The impairing
or destruction of one or more of the following will prevent the birth of
ubuntu or even result in its death: activeness, sureness, oneness,
effectiveness in contact, fullness to the limit, richness of variety,
creative openness.

Ubuntu and wisdom goes hand in hand. One of the wisdoms of ubuntu is not
to reap where you have not cultivated the harvest. I mention this in
particular because in its the dealings with other cultures, the Western
civilisation seldom heeded this wisdom. This had an immense detrimental
effect on ubuntu. Another topic of particular interest in ubuntu wisdom,
is respect. Let us discuss two issues on the topic of respect.

Zulus with ubuntu have an immense respect for hierarchy, seniority and
age. The older a tree, the more a person can learn of life from it. They
have the TACIT knowledge that the ubuntu qualities require a mature tree
of emergences (see Maturana and Varela). It is especially the flowers at
the tips of the branches of the tree which are important. These flowers
are the qualities of ubuntu. It is these flowers which give rise to fruit,
new trees and eventually a forest.

Unlike Westerners, the Zulus have little respect for a time limit, but
rather great respect for the time span needed to complete a task. They
will not shorten the time span to fit some or other time limit which has
nothing to do with the task. Thus they realise that with age comes wisdom,
that ultimate of all epistemological emergences. However, with age comes
baggage which impairs resilience. Therefor, they value their youth, the
base of the pyramid, just as much as its top. The trunk of the tree is
just as important as the fruit which it bears. Their social system
provided richly for the care and learning of their youth. For example,
they have a complex system of schooling to promote the emergence of
various diemnsions in ubuntu.

Sadly, as I have pointed it out in the beginning and in an earlier
contribution, african ubuntu is immerging. (Have you read the book which I
recommended: E J Krige 1936 The social system of the Zulus.
Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter?) African peoples are destroying
their own cultures to run after the 'superior culture' of the West, or the
former Soviet when it still existed, or probably the Far East in future as
it happened in East Africa. They cannot detect the insane drive for power
through profit or bureaucracy as the cancer of these 'superior cultures'.
They swarm to the metropolitan areas to have a better material future, but
most of them end up jobless in slums.

They consider the midwifery which each individual receives in a society
with ubuntu to be inferior to factory based schools, tens of subjects and
hundreds of topics to process, one teacher per crowd of pupils, etc. Thus
they loose sight of their spiritual field ubuntu for material gains.
Consequently they begin to worry about other organisations like the
government not doing their job, rather than worrying about the loss of
ubuntu among the organisations to which they belong. Are they so much
different to us?

What about us? Someone recently asked on this forum how he/she could
transform his/her learning institution into a LO. Very little came of that
request. It does not seem to shock us that our institutions (schools,
colleges and universities) offer learning, but do not have those qualities
which characterise any LO. In other words, it does not seem to shock us
that our institutions offer learning without ubuntu.

It goes much further than that. Someone recently offered a description of
his/her mission in life. It was nothing else than his/her desire for
ubuntu. It resulted in a heated debate; some, for example, questioning the
idea of goodness. Yet almost every day there is a contribution to this
forum lamenting the absence of ubuntu in some or other organisation. It
seems that few of our business and public organisations have or desire

Any organisation with ubuntu cannot be indifferent to the disfunction of
ubuntu, whether in itself OR in any other organisation. It has to foster
the emergence of ubuntu anywhere, no matter how many times the ubuntu
immerges and thus has to emerge again. It never tries to enforce ubuntu
with external work and control, but rather sets up an example which other
organisations can follow spontaneously.

The worst type of disfunctioning in terms of ubuntu is not to recognise
and coexist with different ubuntus - other kinds of trees in the forest.
Thus a major ubuntu task is to set up harmony between all these various
types of ubuntus or trees. This harmony has to reflect the inner harmony
in each of the ubuntus themselves, otherwise each of them will perish! If
the tree perishes, the forest perishes. Westerners have now a concept for
this hyper-ubuntu. It is called ecology. However, in ubuntu, it is still
merely ubuntu. In order to emerge into this stage of ubuntu, deep
creativity has to be encouraged.

What then is ubuntu? It is to learn, respect and promote your harmony with
God, with fellow humans and with nature. Let ubuntu emerge into its full

Best wishes


At de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre for Education University of Pretoria Pretoria, South Africa email: amdelange@gold.up.ac.za

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <rkarash@karash.com> -or- <http://world.std.com/~lo/>