UBUNTU Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

Do you know the meaning of UBUNTU? This article will provide you with all of the “need to know” information on the word UBUNTU!

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If you are studying African humanism, South African ideology, or the ever-growing tech industry, chances are you’ve heard of ubuntu. For those of us out of the loop, we’re here to help. 

Read on to learn about the word ubuntu to discover its meaning, origin, and more. 

What Is the Definition of Ubuntu?

Former US President Bill Clinton — known by a select few as the sax-performing member of the transatlantic rock group known as “the Special Relations” — made a blunder when he mistranslated ubuntu.

As per Clinton, ubuntu meant “I am, because you are.” In reality, the word ubuntu is just a small portion of the Zulu phrase, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” The phrase literally means, “who a person is, is through other people.”

What Is the Origin of Ubuntu?

With roots in African cultures, ubuntu expresses that the idea and compassion for community should always be one of the core building blocks of society. Everyone is connected, and what you do affects the whole world. 

In essence, ubuntu is a vague concept and not clearly defined. This nebulous concept of common humanity holds true to the concept of humanity of others.

Ubuntu is a closely drawn together phrase from the Nguni languages of Xhosa, Zimbabwe, and Zulu. In the English language, this is broadly defined as “a quality that includes necessary and indispensable human virtues of humanity, compassion, understanding, and empathy.”

Ubuntu and Its Role in Apartheid

Apartheid — a political system of institutionalized racism — plagued South Africa and was devastating for the majority of the population. To this day, South Africa carries a massive collective trauma due to apartheid. 

Despite the pain this oppressive system brought forth, many of those most affected were able to rise up. The philosophical concept ubuntu was the guiding ideal to help unite the people of South Africa while helping them remain resolute in their beliefs.

In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, many nationalists and intellectuals referred to ubuntu whenever they tried to push the topic of the Africanization of society and politics. 

In the early 1990s, the sense of being connected through ubuntu appealed to the masses as  South Africans turned away from the separation that apartheid brought. 

While it has been more than two decades since the end of apartheid, the presence and feelings of ubuntu are to this day widely referenced all over South Africa. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Role in Ubuntu

If there is one South African who truly embodied the philosophical concept, that person would be Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As Archbishop Tutu stated in his book No Future Without Forgiveness that ubuntu should be described as “open,” “affirming of others,” and “available to all others.” Tutu expresses that a person who truly possesses ubuntu believes in being part of a greater whole.

With great vigor, zeal, and strength, Tutu endless fought against apartheid, all while maintaining a chair on the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the principle of restorative justice. The underlying concept behind the Truth and Conciliation Commission was ubuntu, or better yet, the need for reconciliation and forgiveness. 

South Africa, at the time, was plagued with indifference, and instead of emphasizing these differences, Tutu became famous for celebrating the differences between all of the people of South Africa. 

UBUNTU in the Tech World

If you find yourself immersed in the tech industry, you may have heard the word Ubuntu used in a different light.

Composed mostly of open-sourced and free software, Ubuntu is the name of the Linux-based operating system. 

Debian’s architecture and infrastructure were used as the building blocks for Ubuntu, which comprises Linux tablets, desktops, servers, and formerly its now-discontinued phones. Operating systems (os) versions were mostly composed of open-sourced and free software.

The system you see is still inspired by the philosophy of ubuntu, with its operating systems being open source (this means that anyone or any group can do whatever they see fit with them, for no cost). Though this concept of sharing is all but lost to the uber secretive world of computer software, maintaining this philosophy has been Ubuntu’s process from the start.

A Final Word

In short, ubuntu has a few meanings. When used as a Nguni Bantu term, ubuntu means “humanity,” however it is sometimes translated as “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others.” Commonly associated with African humanism, other definitions include ubuntu as philosophy, an ethic, and a worldview. 

That is one aspect of ubuntu and the most common. You can also find the term in the tech industry as Ubuntu is the Linux-based operating system created by a South African entrepreneur named Mark Shuttleworth. 

After reading this article, we hope you feel as though you have a much better understanding of the term ubuntu. 


  1. Ubuntu Definition & Meaning | Dictionary.com 
  2. Hunhu/Ubuntu in the Traditional Thought of Southern Africa | IEP
  3. South Africa: Twenty-Five Years Since Apartheid | Origins