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UKZN Press

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African Ethics Marks the Beginning of a New Era: Read a Critical Appraisal

African EthicsAfrican Ethics is the first comprehensive volume on African ethics, centred on Ubuntu and its relevance today. Important contemporary issues are explored, such as African bioethics, business ethics, traditional African attitudes to the environment and the possible development of a new form of democracy based on indigenous African political systems.

In a world that has become interconnected, this anthology demonstrates that African ethics can make valuable contributions to global ethics. It is not only African academics, students, organisations or those individuals committed to ethics that are envisaged as the beneficiaries of this book, but all humankind.

A number of topics presented here were inspired by a Shona proverb that says, Ndarira imwe hairiri (“One brass wire cannot produce a sound”). The chorus of voices in African Ethics demonstrates this proverbial truism.

Read a critical appraisal of the book

African Ethics – A Brief Motivation

This anthology marks the beginning of a new era precisely because it comes at a time when a more comprehensive source on African ethics is needed in Africa and the world as a whole. That is a bold statement but this is a bold book. It is the first comprehensive collection of views on African ethics to be published in Africa or elsewhere. The 16 scholars whose work the anthology represents come from within and beyond the continent. They are all progressive thinkers, questioning the accepted norms of contemporary African society and suggesting new directions to follow in pursuit of African values and their implications to all spheres of human existence. The fact that this book is an anthology of African ethics from a comparative and applied perspective comes as a recognition of the fact that African values have inherited moral values from the western philosophical tradition, Christianity and Islam. Hence African ethics is thus presented as in constant dialogue with other world ethical traditions.

These peaceful revolutionaries – for that is what they are although working through reason not force – here analyse the modern African world in all its aspects, from religious, economic, medical, ecological to political. Where they concur is in believing that our continent’s many complex contemporary problems lie largely in modern society’s failure to tap the mainspring of inspiration for the African spirit. Scrambled, ethically and emotionally, by long experience of colonialism – and, in its most extreme form in this southern tip of the continent, apartheid – Africans have lost touch with their traditional values that have been the source of identity.

The thinkers in this compilation are not naively proposing a return to traditional ways of life. That would not be possible in societies already partly, or even largely, adapted to globalised life experience. Instead they are proposing a broad realignment of existing structures and systems to better reflect the deep-seated beliefs and behaviour patterns integral to the continent. The blend that would be produced would, they feel, have a substance and suppleness that modern African society at this stage lacks.

The foundation of African ethics in sub-Saharan Africa is a humanistic worldview. This is exposed in detail in the first chapters of the anthology but can be simply explained here as a communalism that values above all the sum of the various components of a community as an entity in itself. Individuals are prized as representatives, or essential parts of, this supremely important whole. This whole, moreover, is seen to exist not just in the here and now but in the past, through those who have gone before, and in the future, through those who have yet to come. It is, in this way, three dimensional, with a past that has influenced the present and a present that is influencing the future, all equally important.

Why, we may ask, has this sophisticated worldview – with its emphasis on respect for all of creation, mutual support, and responsibility for the future based on the cumulative wisdom of the past as understood in the present – not been broadcast far and wide? Why should this be the first comprehensive book dedicated to such an important subject? The answer is that this worldview developed in a continent whose natural environment ensured that material goods did not last. This is not a worldview that relies for its concrete expression on the testimony of buildings, artefacts and books. It would not have endured had it done so. No, Ubuntu is expressed by the very societies that live according to its tenets. The communities themselves are living testimony to their worldview.

We may also wonder why, if the traditional African worldview is worth reviving, it should have been unable to resist near obliteration in the first place by invading forces. This is a valid question whose answer can partly be found in the supreme value given by Ubuntu-based societies to the quality of hospitality. Respect for another, especially a stranger, was paramount in traditional communities south of the Sahara. A visitor was to be welcomed and feted – not suspected and resisted.

All revolutions have their intellectual precursors to chart new policy for the way ahead. This is what Murove and his colleagues are doing here. This is the first foray into Africa’s renewed future, with its exposition of the concept of Ubuntu and inroads into concomitant economic, medical, ecological and political policy and practice. But already the next foray is planned, on the subject of applied ethics – how to put the theories propounded into practise in everyday life. This, and its successors, will be the handbooks, as it were, to a possible new form of living more suited to the challenges that are currently posed by our ever rapidly globalising world.

This resurgence of what we might call ‘continentalism’ is Africa’s announcement to the rest of the world that it is taking back its present and its future, and in time its past, into its own hands for the first time since the outset of colonialism. But it is more than an assertion of its right to control its own destiny. Africa believes its own particular worldview has important contemporary messages – guidelines to help improve lifestyles in societies the world over. This anthology will chart the path for inclusion of African values in the curriculum of our institutions of higher learning. Taking into account that the renewal or the renaissance of Africa is indispensable to a moral renewal, this book has definitely come at an opportune time. It cannot go without saying that this African ethics anthology is saying something about the Africans. Through the voices of the different scholars whose works have been included here, this anthology says that the time has come for Africans to take stock of what they deem to be ethical in their various spheres of life.

We commend these pioneers of new thinking. We will watch their progress and look forward with anticipation to the second wave of new ideas with advice on how to apply them in our daily lives. The world needs more such thinkers as these 16 scholars here, dedicated to its improvement through analysis, criticism and creative exhortation to a better way for all.

– UKZN Press

About the editor

Munyaradzi Felix Murove is deputy head of the School of Philosophy and Ethics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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