Help one another, for we are all in the same boat. ⁓ Chinese proverb

A hard work of stone-breaking was soon to be replaced with even more grueling work in a lime quarry. His task was to break through layers of rock and dig out the lime. Pick and shovel were covered with blood dripping from his burst blisters. The scorching heat was unbearable. The blinding glare of the sun reflecting from the white stone seared his already damaged eyesight. Stinking food, dirty clothes, and hardly any shower, miserable bed and abusive wardens were part of his everyday life on Robben Island. This infamous prison was just about 7 km west of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, and Nelson Mandela’s ‘home’ for many of his 27 years spent in prison.

Just before being sent to the prison, his closing statement at the trial summarized his life philosophy: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela lived through his horrifying prison experience and was released on February 11, 1990. He became South Africa’s first black president and he played a leading role in resolving conflicts around Africa and became the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1993.

No one was surprised to see that to his presidential inauguration, Nelson Mandela even invited his former prison guards. His life has become a testament to the equality of all human beings, no matter what the circumstances of their birth. His charisma, self-deprecating sense of humor, and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment, as well as his amazing life story, won him his extraordinary global appeal.

Today, Robben Island is a symbol of the triumph of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, and of justice over oppression. It was here that Nelson Mandela formulated his notions of forgiveness, and it is regarded by many as the birth place of apartheid free South Africa.

While looking for an explanation of what beliefs, principles, and what philosophy was driving the life of such a great person like Nelson Mandela, we come across an old African concept of Ubuntu. In fact, many people regard Mandela as a personification of Ubuntu. So let’s explore it using Mandela’s own words.

He explains Ubuntu as a universal truth and a way of life which includes respect, helpfulness, sharing, community, caring, trust, and unselfishness.

“In Africa, there is a concept known as Ubuntu – the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others;
that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”
⁓ Nelson Mandela

Although Ubuntu represents African humanism in its indigenous essence, it can be traced back to first societies. It is a universal concept essential to all dispossessed people and societies around the world. Group solidarity and the basic need for collective survival form its core. Three leading principles shape Ubuntu:

  • Humanity – The only way to be human is to recognize the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.
  • Life – If faced with a choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life.
  • People – The rulers owe their status and their powers to the will of the people under them, so that will has to be always respected.

“A man is a man through others”, and is therefore entitled to unconditional respect, dignity, care, and empathy from his community or group. Those values, combined with safety, welfare, health, beauty, love, and personal development are to come before all other considerations such as economic, financial, and political ones.

In management, Ubuntu professes collectivism, teamwork and team reward, development, shared values, and joint empowerment. The first step toward Ubuntu is gratitude and acknowledging the connections that we share. Being connected to others provides a necessary opportunity to challenge and correct our beliefs that might be hurting our performance and inhibiting our growth. Ubuntu doesn’t mean respecting bad work, but rather it means respecting the person who does the work.

As long as there are employees who think of themselves as little people, the work of Ubuntu is not done.

Dobrica Savić