Most South Africans spend a lot of time with their family and friends. They take care of everyone in their village, and share a common purpose. In good times and in bad times, it feels like they are all in this together. We feel that happiness in South Africa is defined by Ubuntu.
Many of the people we’ve spoken with about happiness in South Africa during our roadtrip along the Garden Route argue that for them of the most important and satisfying things is to be of help for others. You’d say they’re pretty good in exercising the most important factor that makes a happy life: social connectedness.
In a country full of contradictions, barriers and differences, there is a connection between people stronger than kryptonite.
Even though there are over 2000 different languages in South Africa, Ubuntu is a word they all know by heart.
What makes these people feel so connected and part of a larger whole?
Happiness in South Africa is defined by Ubuntu. Ubuntu is South African philosophy that in its most basic form means “human kindness”. It is often also translated as “humanity towards others”, but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Simply said, it means that a person is a person through other persons.
Ubuntu became known in the West largely through the writings of Desmond Tutu, the archbishop of Cape Town who was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement and who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. All South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, but also Americans as Bill Clinton have adopted the Ubuntu philosophy.
Ubuntu is not specific to South Africa, but is common to most African countries: ‘’Obuntu’’ in Uganda and Tanzania, ‘’Unhu’’ in Zimbabwe, the name differs slightly – but the concept remains much the same: It is focused on the two-way relationship between one-self and others, that involves both sides equally and in mutual fashion. It feels like this ethic of reciprocity establishes a genuine we-feeling and overrules an individualistic mindset. Watch this inspiring video.
We instead of me
The fifty-five year old lady named Szinsi is someone who makes the philosophy visible through her hospitality. She’s a single mom of three who’s living in a desolated rural village near East London. She teaches children English and lives in a small house without almost no furniture, decoration or electricity. Most of her belongings are shared with relatives or neighbors. Her strong, positive and welcoming appearance is marked by the twinkle in her eyes.
In her village, being with and helping others is what counts. It’s what makes life worth living. Every day when she walks back home for half an hour after work, someone will walk along with her, just to have a small chat or come over for a cup of tea.
As she describes, “happiness is being able to go to work, having food and a shelter. In the end, it’s all about being together. We will always help one another. Food, money, love. We share everything“.
That’s why it’s so fascinating to understand why they’re ranked at #116th on World Happiness Index (WHI).
Definition of Happiness in South Africa
Even though we experience a very positive vibe in South Africa, according to the WHI countries as Nigeria, Iraq are seemingly ‘happier’ places to live than South Africa. The two factors of the index that have a large impact on the (low) ranking are the GDP and level of social support in South Africa. Also, according the HPI it seems South Africa is not using her ecological resources efficiently to produce happiness.
Yet the question is whether South Africans feel as unhappy as their country is ranked. Of course, many of them live in a social situation that is heart-breaking and where money + support will increase their living standard. No doubt this would help them tremendously and will increase their level of happiness. But the question is if the current gap prevents them from being (at least mildly) happy right now.
All of the people we’ve spoken with are less focused on their living conditions. They relate happiness directly to their own mindset. To the experience of doing good for others. To Ubuntu.
To sum up, the individualistic mindset often experienced in European cities, including Amsterdam, feels like the opposite of the South African mindset. In Amsterdam, we barely ever hear or see someone in the supermarket asking the cashier how she’s doing, or make a nice chat with someone next to you during your daily commute. We plead guilty as well. We often get drawn into my mobile phone trying to socialize online, even though we know this is not even close to the real thing.
Whereas there’s definitely no right or wrong, and everyone has their own definition of happiness, our Western culture and mindset feels less positive and less caring for each other. But these are just assumptions and feelings.. soon we’ll find out how our Western fellow human beings are actually defining happiness. So to conclude: happiness in South Africa is defined by Ubuntu.