BGCBigs Service Delivery Supervisor, Dr. Sentsetsa Pilane, was asked to write a piece for a publication produced by the Government of Alberta in honour of Black History Month.  Enjoy and join us in celebrating this important theme through the month of February.


A Tribute to Madiba

Broadening our conceptual understanding of the human capacity – Ubuntu

Dr. Sentsetsa Pilane

Madiba in his life and his death is all-in-one a global teacher and global father, a man of service to humanity for humanity through humanity. Even in his death he offers us lessons to broaden our conceptual understanding and knowing of our human capacity (our Ubuntu)

I am honoured and yet humbled to be able to pay tribute to baba (Zulu), tata (Xhosa) or ntate (Tswana and Sotho) Madiba as we call him in South Africa. I feel my words cannot be enough to do justice to a complex life that was so humble, compassionate and yet owned by the entire world.

On several occasions I have been asked to talk on different issues including community building, community health and wellness, education, youth empowerment in community gatherings around the city and I can always draw the essence of my conversations from the rich and complex and yet simply intentional cultural foundation of Ubuntu that I learned from my parents and elders in my youth. I have come to realize that Madiba’s life is the embodiment of UBUNTU, a lived human example of our era that illustrates what it means to live one’s life as a person with Ubuntu. His life, his compassion, his day to day interactions, his purpose and commitment to his intention and other people (despite all odds) all are but a glimpse of what Ubuntu is.

The educator and parent in me beg to ask what life lessons can we learn from this life lived so unnaturally painful yet so desirably admirable? What lessons can we learn for ourselves and for the young ones coming after us whose lives we can still impact?  The curriculum drawn from this life can be so wide ranging and diverse ranging from philosophy, culture and society, power and politics, law and justice through education to history to sports and the list goes on if we want to find it we can. However, at this moment two lessons stand out for me. These lessons are on Ubuntu – humanness and reconciliation.

I learned and came to understand the concept of Ubuntu from my parents, elders and my culture as a child and continue to renew my lessons now as an adult from the active participatory engagement with the people around me. The word Ubuntu is a South African word shared among many Bantu cultures that signifies the essence of humanity as understood and conceptualized in those cultures. Like Madiba I learned what Ubuntu is from listening to my elders and learning from their every word. While as children we knew our place, we also knew to listen and learn from the wisdom of our ancestors’ stories and guidance richly embedded in the proverbs and sayings that to this day guide me. In these cultures, Ubuntu is not just a word that can be thrown about unconsciously. Because of its deep meaning which can be understood at multiple levels it is a concept that encapsulate a culture, a philosophy, a way of life that can actually be lived. It has embedded in it a dimension of spirituality that demands that one should “do unto others as they would have done unto them”

A person with Ubuntu lives their life boldly – they cultivate the qualities in them and in others that allow them to proclaim without fear what they know and what they do about what they know for the common good.


Madiba in his mastery of Ubuntu realized what Albert Einstein had come to proclaim


“We cannot solve today’s significant problems with the same level of thinking we were at when we first created them.”

-Albert Einstein


His understanding of Ubuntu did not only transform his and his immediate comrades’ lives in prison, his prison wardens but transformed the world. Madiba lived his life boldly with intention. The life lessons of Madiba would require us to likewise consciously “Live with intention”. Ubuntu is learned and taught formally and informally as elders teach their young to learn to pay attention to what they pay attention to in their interactions with others and with self. It is thus a tool for self-reflexivity and meta-analysis that can elevate the human mind to act in ways that have great social impact. It is Madiba’s strong commitment to this philosophical ethic, passed on in many South African cultures through oral traditions that I believe, coupled with his natural propensity to embrace humanity and his remarkable skills and intellect as a lawyer that must have intuitively guided baba Madiba’s being in the world and perfected his remarkable resiliency and compassion for his supposed oppressors. Ubuntu was the moral shield that could not permit the chain bearers to rob him if his integrity and his humanity. A person with Ubuntu is a human being with dignity and integrity and who can live his/her life boldly like Madiba.

Madiba also taught us that reconciliation and forgiveness starts with the self and acknowledging where you are no matter how difficult. He did not let circumstances define him instead he defined who he was, boldly facing, acknowledging and working within and with the context he lived in. He acknowledged right from the beginning of his imprisonment that once he and his comrades were behind the prison walls they were no longer leaders in the community but they were prisoners and as prisoners they had a duty to teach those who were guarding them how to treat them with respect (as human beings first). Madiba was the first to confidently show respect to the wardens and to request to be treated with respect. He taught his prison wardens how to treat him and his imprisoned fellow comrades. Even when embattled with bad news from outside prison of the treatment of his family meant to dehumanize him, break his spirit and bring him to servitude, his respect for himself and others eventually taught others to respect him and also taught those who imprisoned him how to respect others.

In his release from prison he never ignored the fact that reconciliation and forgiveness were agonizingly painful processes. He sought to transform and transcend the historical pain to memorialize it in strength and resilience for his people so that his nation could set itself free and be free of bitterness – a tall order to ask of a people maimed, stolen from and deprived in their own rich home. Reconciliation and acknowledging the truth would become necessary to start healing the wounds and to sow the seeds of forgiveness.

He continues to teach us that each moment is a moment of choice – we can choose to not be defined by our circumstances but to be compassionate, to empathise, to be brave and step out of our comfort zone or we can choose to just do our work and perform according to the dictates of our titles, rules, regulations and standards. Our intention is our reason or motivation for acting it is the consciousness behind our actions. I invite us to stop and think about how we could use this great life we were given to learn personal lessons and to create opportunities for us to talk to each other and to our kids about compassion, humility, purposeful conscious living and forgiveness, integrity, purpose, commitment, leadership and service at home, in the schools and in our daily interactions everywhere.


“I have learned that courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid but he who conquers it”. Nelson Mandela


Thank you all for honouring this great man Madiba, he never roared but his courage soared and reverberates across the entire universe.



Translate »