Ubuntu can advance the global citizenship education paradigm

Universities in Africa seemed to have succumbed to neoliberalism by focusing on managerialist practices that enhance performativity, or work for profit, at these institutions. Considering that performativity became associated with universities’ performance on the African continent, it is not surprising that they nowadays focus on increased outputs that can ensure monetary gains.

Even pedagogy at higher education institutions has been influenced by practices of monitoring and evaluation that can increase their performativity.

The original mandate of universities in service of the public good has shifted from the transformation of the student (and, thus, society) to the demand of the workplace and employers.

Global citizenship education

In our recent study, we have found that global citizenship education (GCE) can help to cultivate citizens who promote a just society, thus resisting the neoliberal concerns of universities in Africa.

One example is the student-led #RhodesMustFall movement that started in 2015 in South Africa and quickly resulted in countrywide protest actions to decolonise learning spaces, learning practices and learning content at universities.

Writing in the Global Commons Review (2017), Carlos Alberto Torres, UNESCO chair on global learning and global citizenship education, argues that meaningful GCE should be premised on three global commons, namely, “that our planet is our only home”, that “global peace is an intangible cultural good of humanity”, and that people should “live together democratically in an ever more diverse world”.

Essentially, GCE aims to cultivate a world where restorative justice, to humanity and the planet, becomes a possibility. If enacted, we contend that managerialism might be subverted at universities.

‘Quality of being’

Neoliberal ideologies and the associated impact on higher education are hampering the progressive potentiality and promise within GCE.

Previous studies have shown that the neoliberal approach to GCE reduces GCE to the accommodation of learning material with an international perspective, international internships, the development of competencies and skills to ensure people are equipped to work globally and the improvement of proficiency in English.

Such an implementation of GCE falls significantly short of the UNESCO objective of GCE to “empower learners to engage and assume active roles both locally and globally to face and resolve global challenges and ultimately to become proactive contributors to a more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable world”.

The neoliberal approach ensures education that is obsessed with performance, measured outcomes and the accumulation of knowledge and skills for the individual. At the heart of GCE lies the hope of transformative education that has to do with the ‘quality of the being’ (humanness) of the student (citizen), human dignity and peace.

Of course, this does not mean that knowledge, technical content or demonstrating that learning did happen is rendered unimportant; rather, it means that the ‘being’ (the who) that have gained knowledge is equally important, because now the knowledge can be applied in the world for the greater good of humanity.


From this stance, we argue that the concept of ubuntu could be considered a meaningful pathway to bridge the divide. This is so because ubuntu is concerned with enacting dignified and humane human relations grounded in aspirations for peaceful coexistence and respectful engagement.

The notion of ubuntu that we propose is associated, firstly, with responsible actions; secondly, restorative justice for the perusal of new beginnings; and, thirdly, acts of caring in a dignified manner about communal matters.

Unpacking this notion a bit further reveals that responsible actions could be differently described as purposeful actions that serve the broader society than just the interest of the individual or corporate self.

Actions that are concerned with communal matters will result in the restoration of unjust practices, policies or decisions – implying a reversal of undesired outcomes for marginalised groups within the wider community.

The restoration of human dignity puts great accountability on the individual and the community to be jointly responsible for actions that are morally and politically just.

Now, rightly, one can ask: how can a localised notion such as ubuntu advance a global paradigm such as GCE?

On a local level, glo-ubuntu is particularly important for Africa as transnational neoliberal organisations are known to dispossess the continent and its people of their rightful mineral resources in the name of development.

The voices of citizens embodying the lived realities and consequences of the carnage left behind after their local areas have been stripped of their valuable natural resources are an important addition to learning and teaching material of a plausible notion of GCE.

A sustainable future is premised on the environmental protection of scarce resources but, often, the dire consequences of transnational investments are overlooked in the name of development and corporate social responsibility.

By focusing on ubuntu, a neoliberal approach to GCE that is limited to an observation from the so-called developed West on what constitutes responsible action for and towards the Other (non-Western or so-called underdeveloped African continent) can be enhanced to include the voices, lived realities, knowledge and experiences of the Other.

Compassionate care

Education towards a peaceful world requires opportunities whereby students can co-belong yet have the chance to express their different viewpoints and beliefs. If students (citizens) are offered such educational opportunities, they are more likely to care for others and respect them amid differences.

We live in world marred by conflict, deep inequality and poverty. South Africa, for instance, is one of the countries with the highest level of disparity in wealth and inequality, according to the World Bank.

Pedagogy premised on the notion of ubuntu broadens the narrow approach of GCE from that of mere employability in the global job market to that of GCE towards peace through restorative justice as a result of co-belonging to a (worldwide) community. In this way, the focus shifts from my flourishing (my employability) to the flourishing of the most marginalised (restoration) for sustainable cohabitation.

The notion of ubuntu that amplifies caring and dignified communal action can advance the neoliberal approach of GCE to GCE that results in democratic living. Living democratically implies that citizens can participate in their community with an understanding of their rights and associated responsibilities.

The tension between rights and responsibilities mimics the tension between selfish individualism (for example, a profit mindset in a capitalistic neoliberal world) and communal well-being (sustainable decisions that are just also towards the marginalised). The willingness to change the lived reality of the vulnerable and marginalised is the route from selfish rights to communal responsibilities.

This type of care is premised on recognising the interconnectedness (ubuntu) between all of humanity that leads to a deepened compassion to prompt just action.

In this manner, ubuntu demands openness from both the self and the other – to be open to seeing and being differently through an encounter framed through compassionate care.

Learning opportunities framed through ubuntu allow for the notice of difficulty that could spark compassion towards communal responsibility that, in itself, offers dignity through restorative justice.

Pedagogical opportunities that firstly embrace the embodied voices of non-Western individuals and communities; secondly, create the setting for recognition of co-belonging; and thirdly, offer the opening for noticing and recognising the vulnerabilities of others, are examples of meaningful glo-ubuntu citizenship educational practices in defence of an African philosophy of higher education.

Judith Terblanche heads the BCom Development Project at Milpark Education in South Africa. Yusef Waghid is a Distinguished Professor in the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University. Both institutions are in South Africa. This is an abridged version of their article, ‘Glo-ubuntu as an extension of Global Citizenship Education: Cultivating the notion of an African university’, published recently in the South African Journal of Higher Education.