Ubuntu Dialogues

Student Conversations 2020

As with projects globally, the programme planned for the Ubuntu Dialogues project was disrupted by Covid-19. The pandemic reminded us – project implementers and project funders – that project plans are not static. While it is difficult to plan for an event as unimaginable as the pandemic, project plans are contingent on unexpected and unforeseen circumstances, and that flexibility and alternatives may have to form part of future planning processes.

Lireko Qhobela


Lireko Qhobela is an applied theatre facilitator, drama therapist, performer and a PhD candidate with The Centre for the Study of the Afterlife of Violence and Reparative Quest (AVReQ) at Stellenbosch University. Her work involves the use of art and drama techniques to enable dialogue, self- reflection and healing. She enjoys a fusion of play, yoga and storytelling in her facilitation work. Her current project explores the experiences of applied drama and theatre practitioners within the South African context to better understand their needs as they work in spaces that hold collective trauma narratives. Other interests include the care and wellbeing of artists, mindfulness and fitness. 

Phillip Effiong


Philip Uko Effiong has been teaching at the college level for over 20 years and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He received his Master’s in Literature of the African Diaspora and Bachelor’s in English, both from the University of Calabar, Nigeria. Prior to joining Michigan State University (MSU) in the Spring of 2017, Philip taught drama, fiction, nonfiction, the oral tradition, and writing at various Nigerian, American, and Ghanaian universities. In addition to a book on African American drama, Philip has published several articles that cover a range of topics in the humanities. 

The Participants

As with the 2019 cohort, the participants in the 2020 Ubuntu Dialogues were all postgraduate students representing a range of disciplines: African studies, development studies, education, engineering, environmental studies, epidemiology and global health, geography, history, molecular biology, philosophy, political science, psychology, peace and justice studies, social work, and visual art. One surprising, and encouraging, aspect of the 2020 conversations was the ease with which participants spoke across, and outside of, the boundaries of their respective disciplines. This indicated that the students were willing to think outside of their disciplinary boxes, that they had an interest in issues that fell outside of their respective disciplines and that they could articulate viewpoints, ideas, and arguments beyond disciplinary boundaries.

There were 20 students in the 2020 dialogue cohort – 10 students from Stellenbosch University (SU) and 10 students from Michigan State University (MSU). Of these, 11 were female and 9 were male students.

Michigan State University Fellows

Ajamu Dillahunt

PhD Candidate, History

Michigan State University

Ajamu holds a B.A in History and an M.A in Political Science. Some of their international experiences include an educational trip to South Africa where they were exposed to the history of the anti-apartheid movements and visited museums and other places where iconic black leaders were imprisoned. Ajamu was also the Assistant Editor for the publication Black Perspectives where they also served as the Editor of the #BlackOrganizingToday series. They firmly believe that discussions between students who are committed to social change are indispensable to move humanity forward. Furthermore, the organization they are studying for their dissertation was in conversation with and frequently wrote about the trade union movement in South Africa during the antiapartheid movement.

Carlton Mamo

Sophomore, Interdisciplinary Studies in Social Science

Michigan State University

Carlton is an active member of the East Neighborhood Black Caucus where one of his roles is to organize and facilitate community-building and networking events to create and support spaces for Black students on campus. Carlton is also a resident assistant with Residential Education and Hospitality Services at MSU. As a black male in the U.S., Carlton is cognizant of both the struggles and successes within his community. Through virtual dialogue he looks forward to hearing what this looks like for different communities and individuals as well. Although the United States and South Africa are very physically distanced from one another, he finds joy in knowing that they are connected by some historical events.

Halla Jones

History with a concentration in Political Science with a minor in Peace and Justice Studies

Michigan State University

Halla has strong communication skills enriched by proficiency in Spanish. Halla has experience working as a Michigan electoral organizer where they managed the Swing State Electoral Program in Michigan. She has also served as the National Communications coordinator for Residence Halls Association here at MSU where she successfully managed groups of volunteers.

Javohn Dyer-Smith 

Sophomore, Global & International Studies in Social Sciences with a minor in African Studies

Michigan State University

Javohn Dyer-Smith enjoys learning about foreign languages, economic development, and racial systems and histories outside of the U.S. By participating in the dialogues, he hopes to learn more about the socio-economic conditions of Black South African Blacks within the broader context of South African history, and as depicted in the country’s museums and other heritage institutions. Javohn would also like to learn more about how racial identities and racial debates and politics in South Africa compares to U.S. These dialogues offer a great opportunity to examine the race questions from a non-American lens.

Justice Fowler 

Junior, Interdisciplinary Studies with Minor in Leadership of Organizations

Michigan State University

Justice is an Honors college student who is also part of the National Honors Society. Justice took part in TRIO EXCEL, a 3-week transition program at MSU where they served as a student assistant. They believe that participating in these conversations would be immensely beneficial to their work and education, and that being able to speak with South African students about their experiences and connect with them would be a valuable experience.

Kwabena Edusei

PhD Candidate, Philosophy

Michigan State University

Kwabena holds a B.A in Philosophy and a BSc. In Business Management and Finance. He worked as an Instructor where they designed syllabi and supported students’ learning. In addition, one of Kwabena’s roles was as a teaching assistant where he taught weekly recitations with over 30 students. The Ubuntu project overlaps with 2 areas of his research: language and environmentalism. The project allows for cross-cultural dialogues on the complicated relationship between capitalism, environmental injustice, and political power.

Mamie Hai

Senior, Human Development and Family Studies with a minor in Leadership of Organizations

Michigan State University

Mamie currently serves as the president of the African Student Union at MSU. She also works as a Level III student supervisor for the Residential Housing Services. In addition, she leads and supervises the ushering staff at the Breslin Center during events. Mamie is a founder of an African Dance group called Afro Mélange through which she also mentors’ members of the group.

Mavis Asante

Junior, Psychology

Michigan State University

Mavis has worked as a summer camp counselor with the YMCA and as a research assistant with the HDFS Department on campus. These roles have allowed her to interact and work with individuals of all walks of life. Mavis has often inquired about the ways in which systemic racism continues to be portrayed in areas outside of the U.S. South Africa’s history of the apartheid is an area of interest of hers and hearing the stories of those who are living through the aftermath of it would be an invaluable experience. This project will broaden her awareness on issues concerning underrepresented youth living in today’s world.

Natalie Kagole

Senior, Psychology and double minoring in Global Health and Epidemiology and Leadership of Organizations

Michigan State University

Natalie’s educational background is heavy on science and leadership in politics. She won the 2018 One Health challenge that focused on mitigating the water scarcity crisis in Cape Town, South Africa by analyzing what went wrong with the leadership’s approach. Her biggest goal is to become more of a Global Citizen, deeply rooted in cultural competence. She strongly believes that in order to contribute to the solving of the world’s current world problems, complex and globally spread out as they are, one needs learn to collaborate with people from different backgrounds. The dialogues are a great opportunity for her to understand South African history and realities. This aligns perfectly, with Natalie’s long-term goal of becoming a leader in her country, Uganda, and on the continent.

Remi Gonety

Senior, Environmental Engineering with minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies

Michigan State University

Remi’s experiences include his role as a resident assistant with Residential Education and Housing at MSU. He also works as an Inter-Cultural Aide with the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions where he facilitates roundtable discussions on social issues to increase participants’ awareness. His time at the African Leadership Academy allowed him to broaden his understanding of the history of the African continent, using South Africa as a direct learning ground, and how it contributed to the current state of affairs; moreover, he was empowered to redefined these narratives through writing and using an entrepreneurial approach to solving issues of injustice and inequality that we face.

Stellenbosch University Fellows

Annelize Jo-ève Palmer

Masters Student, Education

Stellenbosch University

umntu ngumntu ngabantu. As a young, coloured woman, coming from a previous disadvantage background, I believe that this is one of the most powerful statements ever made to describe humans. Looking at where I come from and where I am today (being a post graduate student), different people from different backgrounds has played a part in sculpting me to become the woman I am today. Ubuntu describes inner goodness, love, respect, and internal optimism. This concept is completely relevant to the contemporary moment in South Africa and all over the world.  

Anri Magerman

Honours Student, Education Development and Democracy

Stellenbosch University

Contemporary Ubuntu can be found in our family virtual group chats. It can also be found in the text; “are you okay”? The value of Ubuntu not only teaches us humility and compassion, but it teaches us to reach out to our fellow neighbour, family member and stranger. To deeply care about the holistic well-being of our people. Picking up a neighbour to go to church does not mean you imply that they cannot get there in time. Picking up a neighbour shows that, wait, I care about you, and I want to do this for you because without you in the church too – we have no congregation. I see you and value you as someone who forms part of my community. 

Kaylon Weppelman

Masters Student, Research Psychology

Stellenbosch University

The common understanding of the term Ubuntu is centred around the phrase “I am because you are” which highlights humanity. My own understanding of the term Ubuntu is through understanding and acknowledging the complexity of humanity. In other words, when connecting with people I always try to remember that we all operate within systems that have influenced who we are and how we navigate through the world. As a researcher, I am inspired by the works of Simon De B, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko and Prof Pumla Gqola. They have influenced my perception of humanity, consciousness, trauma, what decolonisation looks like while acknowledging the human psyche and how intersectionality influences our current experiences. 

Lesego Hope Mabapa 

Masters Student, Historical Studies

Stellenbosch University

My comprehension of Ubuntu stems from socialisation and it reflects the generic conception that motho ke motho ka batho and that it takes a village to raise a child. I was taught that I am an embodiment and a reflection of the values, principles and capacities associated with the black community. This understanding of Ubuntu brings to the fore the epitome of racial difference used in South Africa to explain humanity or humanness which highlights a comprehension of differential proclivities of societal Ubuntu. 

Loandrie Potgieter

Masters Student, Social Work

Stellenbosch University

Ubuntu is an African philosophy that places emphasis on ‘being human through other people’. It has been succinctly reflected in the phrase I am because of who we all are. The philosophy is attributable to black persons in Africa, but now has worldwide relevance. In South Africa Ubuntu is seen in interdependence and collectivity, inter alia – fostering a spirit of mutual support and acknowledging each persons’ rights and responsibilities for promoting individual and societal wellbeing. 

Lwandiso Botozo

Masters Student, Visual Art

Stellenbosch University

Growing up in a township in the Western Cape in the early 2000s was both a joyous and depressing experience. One day you felt a part of something thrilling and progressive, while the next could leave you feeling disconnected and discouraged. We played games in lively streets, listened to iintsomi (folklore) around bonfires on rainy days. On other days, we stayed home because the streets were too dangerous to play in. I have grown to understand the communities I grew up in have lost their identity. The ideals of community and brotherliness that once stitched them together have come undone. The knowledge which used to be passed through games and folklore which resulted in interdependent society is no longer practiced despite holding valuable lessons about the core ideals of Ubunturespect for human life, human dignity, and interdependence. Many young people do not have access to this knowledge, and those who have access to it either do not know what to do with it or seem to have forgotten what knowledge is for.   

Masixole Ndamandama

Honours Student, Geography

Stellenbosch University

Ubuntu is an important tenant of African philosophy and can be traced back to the Bantu people of Southern Africa. The prominent African proverb permeates cultures, clan and tribes of the diverse African continent and is well known universally too. Nguni people are a group of Bantu people that speak Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi. Ubuntu is a Zulu or Xhosa word, and the Nguni proverb, “umntu ngumtu ngabantu”, loosely translates to “a person, is a person because of people”. The proverb is meant to evoke feelings of closeness, humanness, empathy, respect and community. It stands in stark contrast and offers an alternative to western ideals of individualism and utilitarian philosophies. Instead Ubuntu advocates for human dignity and practicing the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. 

Nombasa Mbatyoti

Masters Student, Research Psychology

Stellenbosch University

Ubuntu, also known as African humanism, is a school of thought that provides foundational values and belief systems for human interaction. The philosophical idea of Ubuntu implies “I am only because you are” in isiXhosa “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu” which translates to “I am human through the humanity of others”. In a South African context, the establishment of Ubuntu was mainly an affirmation to Black South Africans, who were oppressed by an apartheid regime that systematically and deliberately denied their humanity. In the sector of education, all levels of education were racialised and higher education (HE) was specifically reserved for elite White males. Pertinent to this proposal, I will discuss to what extent is the practice of Ubuntu relevant in the contemporary world, particularly in HE, with specific focus on the lived experiences of Black students in historically white institutions (HWI’s).   

Sabelo Jeza

Masters Student, Process Engineering

Stellenbosch University

I grew  up  in  deep  rural  area  in  KwaZulu-Natal,  where  Ubuntu  was  I  actually experienced  Ubuntu.    In  my  point  of  view,  Ubuntu  is  in  a  last  dying  stage.  This  is  due to  the  number  of  factors  that  is  changing  the  African  culture  authenticity.  The  fastest growing  technology  in  past  decade  and  education  system  changed  the  way  people think  and  behave.    The  lack  of  job  opportunity  due  to  corrupt  government administered  by  leaders  that  have  no  spirit  of  Ubuntu  caused  the  whole  nation  to collapse  in  the  notion  of  Ubuntu.  There  are  many  other  factors  that  can  be  discussed as  the  source  of  collapsing  the  notion  of  Ubuntu  within  the  African  region,  this include  our  religious  system  which  interferes  with  African  authentic  culture. 

Zama Mahlobo

Student, Molecular Biology

Stellenbosch University

With everything going on today, we all need to come together and help each other wherever possible no matter how little it might seem. I come from a cultural background where I saw what it is like when education means nothing and was lucky to make it to PhD which seemed impossible. I had to decolonise my mind, debunk stereotypes, and rethink what I want to do in life. Many people laid a helping hand for me to make it and did not expect anything back from me. All they said was ‘pay it forward’. That is UBUNTU. 

The Conversations

Ahead of the first dialogue, the facilitators – Lireko Qhobela (SU) and Philip Effiong (MSU) – sent a document to the participants in which they announced the themes of the four dialogue sessions, introduced the facilitators, explained the process that will be followed in the sessions, and which provided ‘guiding values’ for the conversations. This document can be viewed here.

Each of the dialogue sessions followed a similar structure:

First, the facilitator welcomed the participants and eased them into the conversation with a general question or an exercise. For example, at the start of the session abut flags, monuments, and symbols, the facilitator, Lireko Qhobela asked the participants to point out something that they were wearing or anything about themselves that is important to them. Students pointed to hats they were wearing, to their hair – ‘my hair is short and natural and that is important to me’ – to hoodies, bracelets, shirts, and ‘my smile’. This set the context and the tone for a dialogue about how and why things may be important and dear to us. This lasted about five to ten minutes. The participants were then allocated to breakout rooms where each group had to address a particular question around the topic at hand. The group discussions lasted around 25 minutes, after which the participants were called back into a plenary session.

15 October 2020

Black Lives Matter

Conversation resources:

An interview with the Founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. Watch the video here.

Koleka Putuma’s: Water. Watch the video here.

Questions for consideration in this conversation:

  1. What are your thoughts about the “all lives matter” slogan against the backdrop of ubuntu?
  2. What were the immediate factors that led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013?
  3. How is Black Lives Matter different from (and/or similar to) other struggles for the civil rights and emancipation of people of color in the USA?
  4. How is Black Lives Matter related to historical and current struggles in other parts of the world: the Caribbean, South Africa (and other African countries)?
  5. What type of backlash is Black Lives Matter facing? With this backlash, what is the potential for the movement to thrive and make gains, or fail?
  6. Do you have any comments/questions in response to the interview of Black Lives Matter founders and the “Water” video by Koleka Putuma?
  7. Do you have any comments/questions in response to the interview of Black Lives Matter founders and the “Water” video by Koleka Putuma?

22 October 2020

Flags, Statues, and National Symbols

Conversation resources:

Rebecca Hodes, How Rhodes Must Fall squandered public sympathy. View the article here.

How Flags Unite (and Divide) Us by Michael Green. Watch the video here

Questions for consideration in this conversation:

  1. In your experience or opinion, what are some of the ways flags, statues and other national symbols, facilitate peace, and at the same time, disrupt it?
  2. How can we (in South Africa and the USA) use symbols to reconcile our differences? Is it possible to preserve all legacies within so called democratic states? Why?
  3. To what extent should leaders stand accountable for social change? For example, in South Africa racial categories such as Black and Coloured remained in place after 1994. Has this continued distinction been an impediment to social change and solidarity among Black and Coloured people to continue the struggle towards emancipation? What is the experience in the US where there is less emphasis on these distinctions on an administrative and policy level?
  4. During the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements, government officials were disturbed by some of the actions taken by protestors. Can there ever be real change without radical action, e.g. in the forms of looting, violence, vandalism, etc? Why?
  5. Do you think that hashtags have been successful for protesting against socio, political and economic issues such as “Black Lives Matter”, “Fees/Rhodes Must Fall”, “Bring Back the Land”, to mention a few? How so?”
  6. Do you have any other comments/questions in response to the “Rhodes Must Fall” article by Rebecca Hodes and “How flags unite (and divide us)” video by Michael Green?

29 October 2020

Gender-Based Violence

Conversation resources:

Vincent Cruywagen, Gender-based violence in South Africa: an ongoing and visible epidemic. Read the article here.

Me Too is a Movement, Not a Moment. Watch the video here.

Questions for consideration in this conversation:

  1. Female victims of domestic and sexual violence often end up being slandered and blamed when they report their abuse, especially when the abusers are powerful men that are favored by judicial systems. Can movements like Me Too effectively combat this trend?  What else needs to be done to counter such victimization of victims?
  2. The article, “Gender-based violence in South Africa,” insists that this problem is pervasive in South Africa. For a country that went through a long history of liberation struggles, which involved demands for inclusive justice and safety, why are many of its girls and women still victims of gender-based violence? (The same can be said of other African countries and the United States, which have also experienced liberation struggles.)
  3. In some African countries, individuals have begun to define themselves as gay, transgender, and transsexual, and are facing various forms of assault and discrimination. While addressing issues of gender equality, should African countries also be addressing issues of sexual identity? While addressing issues of gender equality, should African countries also be doing more, or different work, to address issues of sexual identity?
  4. Are there customs and cultural practices in some African societies that can at least be partly blamed for gender-based violence?  
  5. Has the Ubuntu message of communal cooperation and harmony been weakened by patriarchal societies that empower men and marginalize women? 

5 November 2020

The Covid-19 Pandemic

Conversation resources:

Arundhati Roy, The pandemic is a portal. Read the article here.

Two videos from the PBS series, Race Matters, on how Covid 19 highlights racial disparities in America’s Health system:

Watch part 1 here and part 2 here.

Questions for consideration in this conversation:

  1. Covid-19 and the implementation of lockdowns has drawn attention to a lot of pre-existing social issues (especially in developing countries). They include, among others, unemployment, starvation, poor healthcare, gender-based violence, broken infrastructure, injustice, etc. In South Africa, there are talks about an impending second wave of covid-19 and therefore another lockdown.  If this happens, how should it be best implemented in light of the social issues already mentioned?
  2. Because covid-19 is taking an emotional toll on large populations in some European countries and the USA, there is a discernable rise in levels of apathy amongst the people. This phenomenon, which the World Health Organization describes as “pandemic fatigue,” is also detectable in South Africa. “In other words, people are feeling less motivated about following protective behaviours after living with disruption and uncertainty for months.” (ENCA, 20 Oct 2020). In your opinion, how should healthcare professionals, governments, and community activists respond to this growing propensity to neglect ‘responsible’ behaviour? 
  3. Some say that the death rates resulting from covid-19 have forced us to be more conscious of our frailty as human beings and societies. How do restrictions on social gatherings like funerals, weddings, baby showers, etc. make us think differently about what it means to be alive and our interconnections as human beings?
  4. One of the concerns in treating covid-19 is its impact on the environment. From one-time-use medical gear to the high production rate of plastics; most of the materials used are not biodegradable. How can we tackle issues like this pandemic while ensuring that future generations are not denied the right to a safe, clean, and ‘well-preserved’ world?
  5. With about a week to go before the US presidential elections, President Donald Trump, some of his staff, as well as some staff of Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive for covid-19. Unlike Trump, Pence WAS campaigning under the claim that he is an essential worker and therefore not required to quarantine. In light of this development, how is covid-19 impacting politics and democratic practices?  

11 November 2020

Reflection Session (Voluntary)

At the request of the students, an extra session was scheduled.