Jul 14
July 14, 2012

The Spirit of Ubuntu


There is a Zulu proverb called Ubuntu that says: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained it this way: “One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu — the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness ... We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

I learned about the concept of Ubuntu following City Year’s first visit to South Africa in 2001. City Year was founded in 1988 on the belief that young people from all backgrounds could work together to improve their communities and change the world, and was one of the models President Clinton had considered when he created AmeriCorps shortly after he was elected President.

As South Africa emerged from apartheid and began to explore ways to build a stronger and more cohesive nation, President Mandela invited President Clinton to speak at the National Civil Society Conference. President Clinton asked his friend Eli Segal to put together a delegation from City Year to help him demonstrate the power of young people to bring communities together and get important things done. Eli was the visionary founding CEO of Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps.

That trip was the beginning of a series of exchanges and learning opportunities between the US and South Africa that have built a powerful bond between us. It led to the creation of the Clinton Democracy Fellows (CDF) program at City Year, which brought outstanding young leaders from South Africa to the US for an intensive three month program to explore social entrepreneurship and citizen service, as well as spend time working with City Year and other NGOs.

As our ties with South Africa grew stronger, leaders in Johannesburg asked us if we would work with them to adapt the City Year model for the South African context. With President Clinton and President Mandela’s leadership and support, City Year South Africa officially launched in Johannesburg in the fall 2005.

Since then, more than 1,200 young South Africans have served through City Year South Africa, working as tutors in primary schools, running afterschool programs, engaging their fellow citizens in service days and receiving important skill-development training, resulting in post-service placements in jobs, apprenticeships and educational opportunities.

Our partnership with City Year South Africa has had a powerful ripple effect on our organization. We have found synergies we could have never anticipated, and realized we are fundamentally connected through our shared commitment to leveraging the talent and commitment of young people to improve our communities and our world. Our work together also helped pave the way for other conversations with civic leaders around the world, including in the United Kingdom — where City Year London launched in 2009.

Together City Year South Africa’s service leaders are building a brighter future for South Africa and the world, and they inspire us and teach us every day as they bring to life the spirit of Ubuntu. Today, as President Clinton returns to Johannesburg and to serve alongside the young leaders of City Year South Africa, we remain deeply grateful for his leadership and deep belief in the power of young people to change the world.