Original Research

Ubuntu feminism: Tentative reflections

Drucilla Cornell, Karin van Marle
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 36, No 2 | a1444 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v36i2.1444 | © 2015 Drucilla Cornell, Karin van Marle | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 02 March 2015 | Published: 21 August 2015

About the author(s)

Drucilla Cornell, Department of Jurisprudence, University of Pretoria, South Africa; Department of Political Science, Women
Karin van Marle, Department of Jurisprudence, University of Pretoria, South Africa; Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa


The starting-point for the article is to provide a brief background on the Ubuntu Project that Prof. Drucilla Cornell convened in 2003; most notably the interviews conducted in Khayamandi, the support of a sewing collective, and the continued search to launch an Ubuntu Women’s Centre. The article will reflect on some of the philosophical underpinnings of ubuntu, whereafter debates in Western feminism will be revisited. Ubuntu feminism is suggested as a possible response to these types of feminisms. The authors support an understanding of ubuntu as critique and ubuntu feminism accordingly as a critical intervention that recalls a politics of refusal. The article ends by raising the importance of thinking about spatiality through ubuntu, and vice versa. It may seem strange to title an article Ubuntu feminism when feminism itself has often been identified as a European or Western idea. But, this article will argue that ubuntu offers conceptions of transindividuality and ways of social belonging that could respond in a meaningful way to some of European feminism’s own dilemmas and contradictions. Famously, one of the most intense debates in feminism was between those who defended an ethic of care in a relational view of the self, on one side, and those feminists who held on to more traditional conceptions of justice, placing an emphasis on individuality and autonomy, on the other side. The authors will suggest that ubuntu could address this tension in feminism. Thus, in this article the focus will not simply be on ubuntu, in order to recognise that there are other intellectual heritages worthy of consideration, other than those in Europe and the United States. It will also take a next step in arguing that ubuntu may be a better standpoint entirely from which to continue thinking about what it means to be a human being, as well as how to conceive of the integral interconnection human beings all have with one another. This connection through ubuntu is always sought ethically, and for the authors it underscores what we have both endorsed as ethical feminism. In this essay it is considered how ubuntu feminism could refuse the demands of patriarchy, as well as the confines of liberal feminism. The authors are interested in thinking about ubuntu in general as critique, as a critical response to the pervasiveness of a liberal legal order. Their aim is also to explore tentatively ubuntu and spatiality – how could one understand ubuntu in spatial terms, and more pertinently, how could ubuntu and ubuntu feminism relate to spatial justice? Before turning to the theoretical discussion, some of the on-the-ground history of the Ubuntu Project will be reviewed, including the Project’s attempt to build an Ubuntu Women’s Centre in Khayamandi in the Western Cape, South Africa.


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