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Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity

How Piecing Together an Ubu-ntu Cooperative Model Made Me Want to Write Again

Dec 18, 2023

T. O. Molefe AFSEE

T. O. Molefe

Coordinator, Collective Media Cooperative Limited

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A friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while asked recently why I stopped writing. “It’s like you were everywhere one day,” he said, “and then you suddenly stopped and were gone the next.” He was referring to my writing on economic and social disparities in post-apartheid South Africa. I was once prolific, writing weekly columns in national newspapers and a monthly column for the international edition of The New York Times. But I quit all of it all at once in 2016 because it felt pointless. Writing felt pointless—a manifestation in me of alienation under capitalism.

Before I joined the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity (AFSEE) programme, my friend’s question would have triggered an existential crisis. Here I was, a self-identified writer, yet I’d hardly written anything public for the better part of a decade. In my darkest moments, I’d ask myself: is a writer who doesn’t write still a writer?

Instead of spiralling into doubt about the purpose of life, the purpose of me, I replied that I needed space to think about how to write in ways that might feel less alienating. While I knew already that my thinking had come together in a tangible way—in a commune of 16 writers I co-convened as an instance of a cooperative model I pieced together for my AFSEE project based on the African philosophy of ubu-ntu (or humanness)—it was only in that moment when speaking with my friend about the project that I fully understood why I was ready to write again.

Portrait of the members of the writers' commune

Cooperating in a time of coloniality

My AFSEE project emerged from knowing, from past experiences and reading, that ubu-ntu imparts a compelling model for cooperative ethics, governance, and economics. There are many competing accounts of the philosophy. I worked with one put forward by philosopher Mogobe B. Ramose. In this account, ubu-ntu proposes that a person is and becomes a person through their relations with fellow beings, both human and not—including the living, living-dead (or ancestors) and yet-to-be-born. Moreover, recognising the full being of others in these relations and seeking on that basis to establish harmonious relations is what makes a person whole and ethical. Ubu-ntu’s person, therefore, is not only an individual but is also a relation or set of relations that are intergenerational and inclusive of fellow living beings and nature. As the beings in these relations interact, they continually construct and configure values, governance mechanisms, and economic arrangements that determine who they are and become. In calling for harmony as the ideal state of such relations, ubu-ntu tends to foster cooperative relations and has historically shaped cooperative organisational forms in Africa and the diaspora.

However, despite being compelling, ubu-ntu and the histories, knowledge, organisational forms and practices it fosters have been mostly overlooked in scholarship and policies on cooperatives, even in African contexts. The philosophy’s knowledge universe is also not recognised officially by the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), a supposed representative of the global movement. As with much of the literature, the ICA explicitly states that its globally dominant ideas of what ‘modern’ cooperatives are developed from Western European traditions.

Like other cooperative knowledge of the global majority such as buen vivir in Latin America and the values of Indigenous communities of North America, ubu-ntu is also not recognised in the Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation (No. 193) of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a global cooperatives policy framework that embraces the ICA’s Europe-centred position. Since its adoption in 2002, Recommendation 193 has been highly influential in much of the global South, including South Africa. This kind of disregard for the knowledge of Africans and fellow peoples subjected to European conquest is a function of coloniality, defined by Nelson Maldonado-Torres as “long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations”.

So, the main problem isn’t that ‘modern’ cooperatives are European imports to Africa or other places subjected to Western imperialism, as much of the literature claims. Rather, it is that the Europe-centred perspective from which cooperatives have been viewed means that they are studied, theorised and regulated based on an incomplete, and therefore inadequate, record of the rich diversity of ways all people have understood and practised cooperation as an economic strategy. A Europe-centred perspective, in short, undermines the potential of otherwise powerful concepts like cooperatives to reveal fairer futures.

South Africa’s landmark 2004 cooperatives policy is a case in point. Guided by Recommendation 193, the post-apartheid state wrote the ICA’s Europe-centred cooperative values and principles into the policy and related laws and regulations. The recommendation was particularly helpful to the African National Congress, the political party in charge of national policy since 1994. Amid the pressures of governing a racially divided, highly unequal country through the early decades of on-paper democracy, Recommendation 193 gifted the ANC a ready-made means to pursue its vision of a “mixed economy, with state, cooperative and other forms of social ownership, and private capital”. In this dynamic, where domestic political ambitions connected with still-persisting global colonial hierarchies and circuits of knowledge, ubu-ntu was cast aside, even as the government’s own research concluded that the philosophy was a desirable basis for cooperatives to organise and operate. Unsurprisingly, despite triggering a massive rise in the number of newly registered cooperatives, the policy failed to deliver the expected outcome of a poverty-ending, inequality-reducing, job-creating cooperative revolution.

Re-membering African cooperative realities, knowledge, and value systems

Breaking ranks with these historical patterns, our writers’ commune is using an ubu-ntu cooperative model animated by the notion of homo transindividualis, a theoretical relational being. Unlike similar beings of Western thought such as homo reciprocans or homo cooperativus‚ both responses to homo economicus, the self-interested rational man of neoclassical economics, homo transindividualis does not limit cooperation to only a matter of what is to be gained from self-preservation, the common good, or selflessness. Above all, cooperation is an ethical priority that defines the essence of homo transindividualis. It is ingrained and perpetually sought as the most ethical way to be.

In the model, homo transindividualis is not a starting point but, rather, emerges through recognising the full being of fellow beings in the specific relational context and, on that basis, seeking harmonious relations. It is through these harmony-seeking interactions that properties of the model emerge. And since these properties emerge from the specific relational context, there is no universally applicable set. But there are at least eight (see figure) that can be deduced or have been observed, albeit with differing configurations and rankings. In other words, the model is both theoretical and evident in real-world practices of cooperation as an economic strategy in Africa. Instead of being the final word, the model exists in a pluriverse of similar attempts to break from patterns of power, knowing and being entrenched through colonialism in order to, as Sylvia Wynter put it, re-describe what it means to be human “outside the terms of our present [Western bourgeois] descriptive statement of the human, Man, and its over-representation [as if it were the human itself]”. Wynter stressed that there will be no overcoming the manifold crises we face, from alienation to global warming, without redescribing and rehearsing being human in ways that preserve and enhance the well-being of our species, fellow living beings and the planet as a whole.

Emergent properties of an ubu-ntu cooperative model (Source: Author’s deductions and ancestors)
Emergent properties of an ubu-ntu cooperative model (Source: Author’s deductions and ancestors)

Writing to re-member

Piecing the model together allowed me to glimpse possibilities of writing in future through a mode that values the interdependence of the process and seeks to make it more humanising—of me, others in our writers’ commune and those with whom we exist in relation. It reconnected me with my chosen craft and reminded me, as Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o observed, of the role writers have as a result of our particular relationship to social memory in re-membering amid coloniality and other technologies of dismemberment.

As an instance of the model, our writers’ commune represents a relation that we are co-creating to actualise our own writing needs and aspirations. Since we do not become writers on our own and rely instead on networks of relations—with fellow publishing workers and readers, too—our commune aspires, in time, to include all involved in the value-creation process around publishing our work. We know through ubu-ntu that this process is non-linear and ceaseless, so as each of us works on a sole-authored manuscript and contributes to a communal manuscript, we are figuring out what harmony looks like in our context. It’s daunting, the open-ended exploration of seeking to relate harmoniously based on mutual recognition, but I feel transformed already by the experience and am excited to see what comes next as the project unfolds in years ahead.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

T. O. Molefe AFSEE

T. O. Molefe

Coordinator, Collective Media Cooperative Limited

T. O. Molefe is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity and a writer and editor with an affinity for transformative social research. He is also one of the founding members and serves as coordinator of Collective Media, a cooperative working to build a vibrant, democratic, equitable and self-sustaining community around the work of African writers.

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Banner Image: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


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