As uMunthu declines, who are the real casualties?


Recently there have been reports of gruesome killings of women, people with albinism and children being defiled. We see great show of moral decline in the wake of economic desperation. And reacting to one such incident, Welfare Minister Patricia Kaliati had this to say: “It is sad that Janet Chitedze was brutally killed by her cousin Medson Selemani. Where is our humanity? How can a man murder her own cousin and remove her private parts just because he wants to get rich? If you want to get rich work hard and venture into farming to make ends meet.”

This reaction reflects shock regarding behaviour not associated with being human. It reflects concern with behaviour devoid of love, value for life; about behaviour which prioritises selfish individual needs. Indeed where is uMunthu?

Open Perspective this week re-explores the philosophy of uMunthu, and examine how and why we seem to have lost it:


UMunthu is to me the ultimate definition of human kind; of the human being. UMunthu not only means being human but ‘humanness’ itself. It is as a characteristic of both the created and the evolved entity and of its behaviour as compared with other forms of animal life.

The most quoted conceptualisation of uMunthu is one offered in the Xhosa language ‘I am because we are’ or what Leymah Gbowee puts as ‘I am what I am because of who we collectively are.’ At the centre of uMunthu is the value of living with and living for one another. Where uMunthu is in play, there is an on-going search for collective joy, collective peace and collective success.

UMunthu epitomises the uniqueness of human interconnectedness because of being human and because such interconnectedness is a natural capacity and need. There is an underlying meaning that the single human entity living alone becomes ‘sub-human’ and that humanness is determined in the largest part by its ‘interacting collective’ not just by the physical nature of the singular entity.


UMunthu therefore allows us to define ourselves not just as the physical tangible organic entities that we are, but uniquely as a complex of feelings, behaviours, values, attitudes, expectations and special organizational attributes which ultimately express a uniqueness of a life type.

I always view uMunthu as comprising two critical parts, namely humility and accountability. Humility of the heart because ‘I am because we are’ and because one human alone will soon become incapable of feeling human; and accountability because what the individual human entity does takes into account its impacts on another.

UMunthu has two sources. The first is the physical nature which comes with it a spiritual nature manifesting in morality, emotional cohesion, sympathy, empathy and a propensity for recognising a divine realm. The second source is a natural process of transmission of uMunthu through the socialisation of young generations.

I believe that this is what some scholars mean when they refer to uMunthu as ‘the very essence of humanity’ because it not only natural but is also transmissible for the perpetuation of its type and social organization.

You see uMunthu is so powerful it is present in our very language, whatever language we have created. It is both transmission and application of uMunthu when humans reason that ‘another person’s child is your own’ or when people suggest that ‘to be all alone is more animal like than human’.

The one celebrates and seeks to sustain man kind’s accountability for and to one another; it teaches that sisters or brothers are each other’s keepers because they need each other. And the other celebrates human kind’s inborn interconnectedness which isolation demeans.

It is uMunthu when poor people amass assistance from the little they have to help fellow humans de-humanised by impacts of floods. It is uMunthu when the young and old, male and female work together to remove rubble after earthquakes with bare hands to save a life they do not know. It is uMunthu when a passer-by stops to separate total strangers engaged in a fight.

UMunthu is not competitive, but rather complimentary. It never confronts but rather it reasons. When challenged uMunthu never raises the voice in anger, it works to improve reasoning. At all costs, it avoids causing harm but assures love and protection. UMunthu distributes equitably and never accumulates for the self.

It is the nature of human’s with uMunthu to project an almost divine character; a divinely endowed purpose of belonging to a greater whole with every member doing their best to keep peace, to progress together and to share everything fairly.

Where do we lose it then?

I do not know? Yet it seems to me that in spite all the education, development and technology humans are drifting from uMunthu and sinking deeper into evil. And the contradiction in this trend is fundamental.

Education is associated with making people better but it also fuels competition and individualism. Education is replacing known human morality with other moralities and eating at the very core of humanness. In fact what the world calls development is synonymous with moral degeneration, self-glorification and destruction of the human collective.

As Shakespeare says fair is foul foul is fair. Wrongs are right and right is wrong. So even as little children kill other children, you are mad to consider banning gun ownership. Even with all the education and rights, Caucasians must kill blacks and expect no indictment.

Sadly, the collapse of uMunthu oppresses the weak and poor in a world which has turned wealth and power into ruthless rulers of conscience. Without uMunthu greed creates poverty as the powerful take all; hate creates conflict turning peace into torture, simple joy and happiness into pain and sorrow.

The greatest casualty is the child. Children are learning that it is fine to kill. It is alright to steal. It is normal to lie. You don’t have to work to be rich. There is no morality except your own. And all these are neither true nor are they right!

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