Original Research

Exploring ubuntu discourse in South Africa: Loss, liminality and hope

John L.B. Eliastam
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 36, No 2 | a1427 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v36i2.1427 | © 2015 John L.B. Eliastam | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 16 February 2015 | Published: 19 June 2015

About the author(s)

John L.B. Eliastam, Department of Practical Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa


This article explores the current state of the social value of ubuntu. The notion of ubuntu seems to offer possibilities for nation building and social cohesion in post-Apartheid South Africa.However, this is contested by scholars who argue that the concept is vague and open to abuse.Interviews reveal that, whilst core elements remain, the meaning of ubuntu has been eroded,and is subject to distortion and even abuse. Ubuntu exists tightly interwoven with un-ubuntu. The notion of liminality is introduced to understand the current state of both ubuntu and South African society in transition. A liminal space offers possibilities for the creative re-imaginingand recovery of ubuntu as a social value that can drive social transformation in South Africa.The lens of discursive leadership offers insight into the ways in which leaders can stimulate and shape ubuntu discourse and facilitate the construction of new meaning in society.

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: The article forms part of broader research into perceptions of difference and threat, and prejudice on the part of South Africans towards foreigners. Ubuntu is a social value that should challenge prejudice and xenophobia and shape social relationships. Research in a rural and urban context in the Eastern Cape suggests that ubuntu discourse has been eroded and is in need of reinvigoration.


Ubuntu discourse; Social Values; Social cohesion; South Africa


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