We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in the field of human relationship. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face – Steve Biko, 1970, Political activist who died for his beliefs
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Regardless of how naive this book may seem in its assumptions and visions and how badly written (sic) it is, it is still an interesting read, obligatory for the managers and HR departments of companies, especially in my homeland.
Ubuntu, as explained in the book by the same title ‘comes from our natural energy within’ and is ‘about engaging another person in an authentic way’. It is an old compassionate philosophy implemented recently by two Noble Prize for Peace winners (the only two winners which are residents of the same street - in Soweto), Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. According to the authors of the book, in the field of work Ubuntu allows to ‘function more effectively while at the same time improving the quality of life at work. It is about respect and recognition of ‘the humanity, the equality, and the value of each person’.
You cannot fake it. You cannot just do ‘Ubuntu’. You have to be it. You cannot pretend you care about your co-worker since without real respect and trust, the motivational techniques will ‘come across as manipulation’. Being it doesn’t mean however that you could abuse it – ‘when the group is threatened by an individual’s behaviour, that person must be challenged’, just like it is in the African communities when an elderly woman is able to give advice to younger ones, regardless of their position in the society.
I first came across Ubuntu philosophy in Uganda – it dragged me to this continent so many times. I always go back to the first time when – while working as a correspondent for the Polish radio – I heard from my fellow Ugandan journalists who informed me on phone about new stories I ‘should definitely cover’. My level of suspicion great – no strings attached? No rat race? Other journalists instead of trying to get a better story than mine offer me a lift to another village? It can’t be real! I explained it by the degree to which friendships and relationships are interlaced with working environment.
I – surprisingly! - learnt Ubuntu in Ireland. Working for an Irish company with old traditions and well-experienced staff which I described at first as laid-back and quite lazy. That’s at least how I used to put it. Confronted with the status quo, at first I tried to put on that fake smile I used to have in Polish working environment. I was used to working under huge stress and tight deadlines and quite identified seriousness with professionalism, also in the new place I worked. It was considered both quite dynamic but at the same time really unnatural and strange. It had to change, but I had no idea how difficult it would be. The first time I heard from the financial director of the company to ‘relax’, I was struck and considered the advice as fake and aimed at ruining my career. However, the harder I tried to impress my workmates, the less successful I was and the less human was the face I put. Slowly I started to measure my performance not only by the output of my work but also by humble nature and attitude, flexibility and teamwork.
Unfortunately enough, I believe that in my home country, a view that a sensible company would ever draw example from an African tradition of altruism and companionship at work is quite abstract. Yet Ubuntu has been to me a factor that could play a key role in order to help to improve our Eastern European companies’ performance - yet another thing we could learn from Africa, what do you think – Mirza?