Ubuntu-driven social innovation

Es’kia Mphahlele had a point. The dependency syndrome, that one-sided reliance on others for aesthetics, culture, morality, science and technology, has kept Africa hostage. If we take seriously the view of development as freedom, as Amartya Sen argued, then we cannot seriously consider ourselves truly free. Forget the hype about freedom and black empowerment. We have jettisoned our indigenous sources of aesthetics, culture, knowledge, morality, inspiration, innovation and productivity — all of which are essential to development. We walk over these sources of life production as we would trample over the graves of the dead. Ubuntu, African humanism, is a life force capable of stimulating collaboration, creativity and productive ideas necessary for social and economic development. Ubuntu contains within itself the seeds for for social innovation.

Let me explain.

The most important precondition for social innovation is inclusive diversity. Does this sound like the famous line in the constitution, United in our diversity? What does it mean to say inclusive diversity is a precondition for social innovation? It simply means this — in order to generate creative ideas we need to bring diverse groups of people together to generate, explore, share and improve ideas. The ultimate goal of this process is to generate new ideas with added value. To be inclusive means to bring into the fold of creativity those we are tempted to exclude: those who don’t look, think, act, talk, live, love, like us. Diversity means resisting the temptation of “blood is thicker than water”, the temptation of cultural cloning, the temptation of having only our own kith, keen and kind. Odds are that exclusive groups — for instance, a team of black, male, old, Zulu economists — will not be as innovative as inclusive groups — for example, a multidisciplinary and multicultural team of men and women, young and old.  In order to maximize the possibility of innovation, mosaic teams with respect to culture, disciplines, gender, generation, nationality, etc, are preferable to teams of cultural clones. Inclusive diversity allows cross-pollination of seemingly unrelated ideas, frames and perspectives. As Michael Michalko would say: “Allow your ideas to meet and have sex with other ideas to generate news ideas”. The most innovative companies have integrated and normalized this practice in their business models. Bigotry, prejudice, racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, tribalism, xenophobia — the fear and loathing of the other — are obvious killers of social innovation.

So what does ubuntu, African humanism, have to do with all of this and social innovation. Everything, I dare you! The idea of Ubuntu has an equivalent throughout this vast continent. To illustrate the concept of Ubuntu, the Kenyan philosopher and theologian John Mbiti once paraphrased Rene Descartes’ dictum “I think, therefore I am” into “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”. Another expression of this is that “No man or woman is an island”. That is the sum and summit of African humanism — humanism because it requires us its practitioners to recognize and love ourselves in others, to discover and embrace the strangers within us.

This means valuing the humanity and dignity of others leads us to something greater than tolerance. Tolerance is an attitude of the arrogant who consider themselves superior in all aspects towards those whom they consider as abnormal, immoral, inferior and deviants. It leads to the elevation of humanity to what it truly is and should be. It makes us better human beings. It prompts us to see the shortcomings of others, not as evidence of their inferiority but as mirrors of our own shortcomings, to avoid projecting onto others what we hate in ourselves. Logically, with regard to inclusive diversity and social innovation, this should lead us embrace difference, to resist the temptation of “blood is thicker than water”. If we value humanity in others, then we will not silence their ideas simply because they are not part of our tribe, nation, community, family. In recognizing our own shortcomings we reckon with our blind spots, we come to terms with the fact that we don’t know and cannot know everything, that others have something valuable to offer us. We must allow what the German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gamadar, called “the fusion of horizons” take place between us and the others. We must allow our ideas to meet and mate with the ideas of others in creative encounters to give rise to new generations of better ideas.

There should be no surprise in experimenting with the concept of ubuntu in the field of social innovation. Reuel Khoza has done exactly that in the fields of business and leadership. It’s an ideas experiment in which he draws on ubuntu as a philosophical and moral compass with which South African businesses can reorient and reinvent themselves into organizations that take seriously the views of their stakeholders — employees, clients, shareholders, communities, etc. In other words, Khoza is saying Ubuntu-led business models should enable the ideas of business bosses to meet and have sex with the ideas of stakeholders in order to generate fresh and productive ideas. Mphahlele also alludes to this in his writings.


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