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An African Feminist Ethics of Care?: Southern African Perspectives

Venue: Online

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The Birkbeck Institute for Social Research’s Age, Care and the Caring Crisis working group have great pleasure in announcing an online seminar on the Feminist Ethics of Care. Four scholars from South Africa will present papers that open-up Eurocentric understandings of care that often underpin discussions and debates on care in the UK and elsewhere. Taken together the four presentations will critically investigate Ubuntu, a southern African conception of care, from an intersectional perspective, providing a multi-scalar understanding of the power dynamics embedded in the concept, discourse and practice of ubuntu.


  • 'An African indigenous understanding of Ubuntu and resilience', Faniswa Gxamza (Stellenbosch University)
  • 'Ubuntu & the pursuit of personhood: Exploring intergenerational black middle-class relations in contemporary South Africa', Vanessa L. Mpatlanyane (University of Cape Town)
  • 'Interrogating the concept of Ubuntu in the provision of direct care in South Africa', Juhi Kasan (University of Cape Town)
  • 'Understanding Ubuntu and care within family networks: revealing tensions and their sources', Elena Moore (University of Cape Town)


The event will be of interest to researchers, policy makers and practitioners working in the area of Care and the Caring Crisis.


'An African indigenous understanding of Ubuntu and resilience'

Faniswa Gxamza, Stellenbosch University

An overview of the literature on the indigenous African conceptions of ubuntu and resilience is presented in this presentation, using the concepts of afro-communitarianism and self-determination theory as a framework. Ubuntu and resilience are understood in accordance with an African philosophy that emphasizes the interdependence of the individual and the community. This presentation's goal is to investigate and clarify how ubuntu and resilience could enhance the health and wellbeing of an African indigenous community. The addition of this thinking in literature can help indigenous communities that are hampered by Eurocentric knowledge

'Ubuntu & the pursuit of personhood: Exploring intergenerational black middle-class relations in contemporary South Africa'

Vanessa L. Mpatlanyane (University of Cape Town)

Literature on Ubuntu in South African communities highlights aspects of care, interconnectedness and mutual respect as both an ethic and practice. These aspects of Ubuntu are possibly most evident in the exchanges that occur within  family/kin networks. In many black South African communities, the legacies of colonization and Apartheid, as well as present failings of the state, have necessitated a family/kin-based network of care and provision. While different members of the kin network may play different roles, the expectations placed on black middle class members comes with its own set of expectations and norms.

Ubuntu signals a generalized way of meeting expectations and norms which can be influenced by one’s socio-economic status, race, position in family, generation, and gender. Rather than seeing disadvantage kin members as dependent on middle class success, attention to black middle-class relations in context across classes and generations reveals that the black middle class is in pursuit of personhood, in the African philosophical sense, and that acts of Ubuntu are a means towards that end. The presentation explores the dynamic between generations within families/kin networks to show how Ubuntu in practice is not separate from the journey of acquiring personhood. Rather it is through community, interconnectedness, care, as well as the sharing and exchanges of both material and immaterial resources that personhood is acquired.

'Interrogating the concept of Ubuntu in the provision of direct care in South Africa'

Juhi Kasan (University of Cape Town)

Across the continent approximately 70 per cent of care is provided by women within the family. Only 30 per cent is situated outside the family in public, private or non-profit institutions. Rogero-Garcia (2012) has dubbed Africa’s care system as the most ‘unshared’ in the world. In South Africa, the philosophy of Ubuntu underpins a care ‘system’ that is largely held together by low-income, black women. Many scholars have assessed the importance of Ubuntu in maintaining the familial reciprocity that makes intergenerational care possible. Ubuntu is often revered for its inherent understanding of interdependence, lifelong vulnerability and relationality. In contrast to the political subject of the modern Western world, Ubuntu upends the myth that we are atomistic and self-sufficient. However, there is an urgent need to investigate the ways in which Ubuntu is deployed to the detriment of those that see to the social reproduction of this salient principle. In post-Apartheid South Africa, Ubuntu features across a range of policy documents including the White Paper on Social Welfare (1997) and the White Paper on Families (2021). Due to the porousness of the concept, Ubuntu is often instrumentalised to re-enforce a largely familalist approach to care. Using the ethics of care as a critical political theory, this presentation investigates the usage of Ubuntu in policy documents. It argues that policy documents are in fact carriers of norms that ultimately determine the allocation of care and emulates the state’s stance.

'Understanding Ubuntu and care within family networks: revealing tensions and their sources'

Elena Moore (University of Cape Town)

 Ubuntu is a concept in southern Africa that is given utmost importance in policy and legal texts and is a key principle governing society.  With the emphasis on interdependency, relationality and solidarity, scholars have noted the links between Ubuntu and an ethics of care. Whilst black South Africans have a duty to support family members based on customary law, this moral order makes it extremely difficult, if not contrary to customary law, to abscond or ignore family care duties to older persons, even at the expense of one’s own wellbeing. However the moral duty to care is also a moral framework of necessity, frought with explicit and implicit tensions as to who in a family takes on what elements of care and for whom.  The opportunities foregone that those who undertake prolonged and unsupported care work experience become an important driver of ongoing racialised, gendered and classed inequalities. This paper supports calls to recognise the importance of Ubuntu and contributes to the distinction between ‘Ubuntu-talk’ and ‘Ubuntu-do’ (Gouws and Van Zyl, 2015: 173). I argue that the state’s inaction to support family care increases the need for gendered and classed practices of ‘Ubuntu-do’ whilst state inattentiveness to the gendered and generational reproduction of inequalities and marginalisation for female carers reminds us of the consequences of familialist rhetoric in authoritative policy texts that focus on Ubuntu-talk.

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