American Ubuntu

Almost 50 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy created a ripple of hope at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, not far from where I was christened, when he announced to a diverse crowd:

"I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; … a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage.”

He was referring, of course, to the United States of America.

Kennedy reminded those assembled that Southern Africa had the same ancestral and natural ingredients as Northern America. His words helped me understand my own Euro-African roots as I ventured from the Commonwealth of Africa to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Founding Fathers’ great American Dream drew me, like generations before, to these promising shores. During the intervening years I encountered the dream’s challenges as well as its opportunities. For all its promises America faces mounting perils posed by unequal incomes and unbalanced budgets. I discovered that The American Dream is to give the next generation a better starting point in life than we were given. The question is then, how to bestow that gift?

Well, South Africa faced this dilemma in 1994 when we had to rebuild a fractured society into a whole Rainbow Nation. South Africa is not perfect by any measure, yet as our unlikely liberation story attests, we pulled together to forge peace and to grow prosperity. With this in mind, I want to share with you a little insider’s story about South Africa’s peaceful revolution.

Two of South Africa’s Founding Fathers, President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who both received honorary doctorates from Harvard, and with good reason), championed the idea of Ubuntu.

This is an age-old African humanist philosophy that was nearly forgotten after centuries of disruptive colonial and post-colonial turmoil. Mandela and Tutu injected its spirit into the public realm just as South Africans grappled for a new national identity. Our tribes, Zulu or Xhoza, British or Afrikaner, embraced the idea of Ubuntu and immediately rallied to resurrect its spirit.

Ubuntu is very hard to define, perhaps because it predates English. It simply means: I am, because we all are.

In other words, you can only become greater in anything you do alongside others, not independently of others. This is an ethos that rings true in today’s hyper-connected world where we all share in the bounty of the expanding Internet, the risk of climate change, and the impact of transformative globally linked democracy movements.

Archbishop Tutu explained Ubuntu as an act of human “inter-connectedness” that makes us open and available to others. It is the knowledge that when we are diminished I am diminished, when we are excluded I am excluded, and when we flourish I flourish. When you pull an all-nighter writing a paper, I’d give you a wake-up call.

President Nelson Mandela, with his characteristic wisdom once explained Ubuntu to youths: “A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

Looking back on his words and my experience as a stranger in this “village,” I realize that Harvard has Ubuntu. The Harvard Village has a Chief, elders in robes, proud tribes with coats of arms, and special rights for cows in our very sacred 375 year-old Yard. Today our village has its festival rites; we call it Commencement, when the youth of the tribe are initiated, and pass through these gates fully vested.

I showed up in our Village almost 10 years ago with two backpacks and my loving family an ocean away. The Harvard Village sustained my body and cultivated my mind, and through others I could take the first step toward the American Dream. I am not alone in experiencing Harvard’s Ubuntu. Every year thousands of students, scholars at risk, researchers, and world leaders come to this Village on the Charles to grow and to learn together. They do so to better themselves so that they may one day enable their communities beyond these gates.

When we generate profit, may the community share in that profit, when we champion justice, may that justice serve all equally, when we heal, may that lead to global health, when we design cities, may our efforts serve our planet as well as our people, and when we engineer and experiment, may our breakthroughs bring us all closer together.

I came here to pursue the American Dream, and found it just the same as the dream of my home. We leave today to work for The Dream of Ubuntu!

W. Hugo Van Vuuren ‘07 is a member of the Harvard Graduate School of Design Class of 2012 and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.