Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 337-344
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 337
Educating for Ubuntu/Botho: Lessons from Basotho
Indigenous Education
Moeketsi Letseka
Department of Edu c at io na l F ou n dations, College of Education,
University of South Africa, Pretor ia, South Africa
Received December 8th, 2012; revised January 10th, 2013; accepted January 24th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Moeketsi Letseka. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
This article reflects on shocking and horrifying incidents of moral indiscretion that have become com-
monplace in South Africa. The aim is to understand why human beings would carry out such shocking
and horrific acts on fellow human beings. The article draws on Dismas Masolo’s book Self and Commu-
nity in a Changing World to unpack the notion of personhood. It draws lessens on Basotho indigenous
education. The choice of Basotho indigenous education is premised on the assumption that it is the au-
thor’s own native knowledge with which he is most familiar, and about which he can write uninhibitedly.
Keywords: Ubuntu/Botho; Personhood; Humanness; Basotho Indigenous Education; Morality; Moral
On a daily basis homes, schools, work places and public
spaces are bombarded by reports from the public media—the
radio, television and print media on violent crime, murder, rape,
assault, police brutality and similar moral indiscret ions. A mor-
ally discerning person [however we define such a person] will
be distressed upon listening to accounts of such moral indiscre-
tion on the radio, watching their images on television or reading
newspaper reports on them. This is because such reports raise
serious questions about what it means to be moral, and how
ought we to treat others. The title of ethicist Neil Levy’s book
What Makes us Moral? is most pertinent to the issues I am
grappling with in this article. Levy (2004: p. 41) acknowledges
that defining morality is no easy task. However, it is his con-
tention that a moral system must be devoted, largely if not
wholly, to a concern for the welfare of other people. Thus for
Levy (2004: p. 44), a morality must systematize norms of jus-
tice and fairness and prescribe equal treatment for everyone. In
this article I explore ways in which ubuntu/botho, understood
as morality (Metz, 2007), humaneness (Mokgoro, 1998), and
personhood (Letseka, 2000) can be taught with a view to “cre-
ating citizens”1 that are initiated in ubuntu/botho dispositions. I
imagine such citizens to be inclined to treating others with jus-
tice and fairness at all times. In a recent article in The Chronicle
of Higher Education Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe (2012)
argue that as important as it is to teach students how to think
critically and analytically, another fundamental that is largely
neglected is the development of the intellectual virtues that
students need to be good citizens. For Schwartz and Sharpe
(2012), such virtues would entail the love of truth, honesty,
courage, fairness, and wisdom. I shall argue that Basotho in-
digenous education sought to instruct the young people on mak-
habane (virtues) such as hard work, respect for persons, humil-
ity, perseverance, service to the nation, and patriotism. What is
missing from the above-mentioned accounts of moral indiscre-
tion is the notion of respect for persons and acknowledgement
of the principles of the “golden rule”.
The notion of ubuntu/botho has been widely theorized (Let-
seka, 2012, 2000; Metz, 2011, 2007; Bessler, 2008; Ramose,
2006, 2002, 1999; Broodryk, 2002; Sindane, 1994; Mokgoro,
1998; Shutte, 1994). On the one hand Ramose (2006) contends
that ubuntu/botho represents the epistemological paradigm that
informs the cultural practices, including the law, of Bantu-
speaking peoples. While Broodryk (2002) conceives of ubuntu/
botho as a comprehensive ancient African worldview based on
the values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect, compassion
and associated values, ensuring a happy and qualitative human
community life in a spirit of family. On the other hand Enslin
and Horsthemke (2004) express doubts about the viability of
ubuntu/botho as a model for citizenship education in African
democracies, while Marx (2002) casts ubuntu/botho as an in-
vented tradition whose task is to minimize historical chasms
and fractures. Others have either offered a defense of ubuntu/
botho (Letseka, 2012), or argued a case for ubuntu/botho as a
moral theory (Metz & Gaie, 2010; Metz, 2007; Teffo, 1994),
and as a public policy (Nkondo, 2007).
1I borrow the idea of “creating citizens”from Eamonn Callan’s (1997) book,
Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy. Callan
(1997: p. 3) advocates a political culture in which there is an active com-
mitment to the good of the polity, confidence and competence in judgements
regarding how that good should be advanced, and a respect for fellow citi-
zens as well as a sense of common fate with them that goes beyond the
tribalisms of ethnicity and religion and is yet alive to the significancethese
will have in many people’s lives.
What I attempt to do in this article, which is a contribution to
the debate in philosophy of education and African philosophy
in South Africa, as well as a sequel to my previous contribution
to this debate2, is to explore ways in which young people in
schools and communities in South Africa can be initiated into
ubuntu/botho moral dispositions. I shall draw on Masolo’s
(2010, 2004, 2003) articulation of the notion of personhood to
argue that educating for ubuntu/botho should entail equipping
young people with the kinds of attributes and dispositions that
enable them to live lives that are anchored in communal under-
standings of personhood and humaneness. It is my contention
that educating the young people for ubuntu/botho is sine qua
non to addressing the social and cultural challenges of contem-
porary South Africa, which continues to be marked by the ab-
sence of a shared moral discourse (Morrow, 2007) and intoler-
ance (Gibson & Gouws, 2005).
The article is structured around five sections. First, I sketch
media reports on a number of moral indiscretions that shock
and horrify. My aim is to reflect on why human beings would
do such shocking and horrifying deeds to fellow human beings.
Second, I explore ways in which the notion of ubuntu/botho
might respond to the above-mentioned incidents of moral in-
discretion. Third, I tease out conceptions of personhood draw-
ing on the work of Masolo (2010, 2004). Fourth, I sketch Ba-
sotho “indigenous education” (Matšela, 1990, 1979) and draw
lessons from it that can be learned for framing a conception of
education for ubuntu/botho in contemporary South Africa. Ma-
solo (2010: p. 21) argues that the term “indigenous” defines the
origin of an item or person in relation to how their belonging to
a place is to be temporally characterized, especially in com-
parison to other contenders in claiming belonging. One might
ask: but why Basotho indigenous education? If I could, I would
happily write about Zulu indigenous education or Xhosa in-
digenous education, or any other ethnic group’s indigenous
education for that matter. But I cannot. Like Kwasi Wiredu and
Kwame Gyekye who have written extensively on Akan notions
of morality and personhood, which is their own native knowl-
edge and one about which they can write uninhibitedly, I am a
Mosotho who was brought up in a traditional Sotho homestead
in rural Lesotho. Realistically therefore, I can offer my readers
an account of Basotho indigenous education which is likewise
my own native knowledge with which I am most familiar, and
about which I can write uninhibitedly. I take education to be
more than just schooling, but to also encompass transmission of
the culture(s) of society from one generation to the other (Ad-
eyinka, 1993). But I am also persuaded that educating the
young people should entail exposing them to other cultures be-
sides the cultures in which they are born and bred. In the final
section I offer some concluding remarks.
Incidents of Moral Indiscretion
A young mother is gunned down by two masked men on a
motorcycle after dropping her five-year-old son at a crèche
(Hosken, 2011); a man charged with the brutal murder of a ten-
year old girl for her body parts to be used for muti is sentenced
to life imprisonment (Dlamini, 2011); a mob sets alight and
kills an elderly couple whom it accused of practicing witchcraft
(Mkamba, 2012); four men are jailed for eighteen years each by
a Cape Town Court for stabbing and stoning a 19-year girl to
death for being a lesbian (Pretoria News, 2012). The above-
mentioned incidents are shocking and horrifying. They cause a
morally discerning person to pause and wonder what happens
to human beings when they carry out such shocking and horri-
fying acts on fellow human beings, and to speculate on how
society ought to resp o n d to such incidents.
In a newspaper commentary titled “Socializing our boys to
be better men” Rhema Church senior Pastor Ray McCauley
(2012) notes that “three acts of rape in our country in the past
two weeks call into question the type of society we have be-
come. More importantly, they call for urgent action and com-
munity mobilization against these ever-increasing inhumane
and barbaric acts against often defenseless women and chil-
dren”. McCauley (2012) recounts the gang rape of a 17-year-
old mentally ill girl in Soweto; the rape by a girl and a woman,
of a 17-year-old mentally ill boy, again in Soweto, and a 15-
year-old boy who raped, bit and gouged the eyes of an 8-year-
old girl in KwaZulu-Natal. McCauley suggests that “we need to
deal with this shame among us not necessarily as a response to
the negative image created about us internationally, but because
fundamentally we reject any form of violence against women,
children and the vulnerable among us”. He makes three impor-
tant observations: first, the incidents cited show that a sub-
culture of rape and violence is taking root (if it hasn’t already)
among our boys. Second, the coercive sexual behavior against
the vulnerable (in this case the mentally disturbed and children)
continues. And third, though in South Africa we seldom talk
about female-on-male rape, the rape of boys by women is be-
ginning to surface and could be happening more often than
society cares to admit. McCauley contends that the stereotypi-
cal behaviors of boys are not obtained by birth. Rather, they are
acquired as the boys keep growing. He is concerned that this
raises the issue of the kind of values that fathers and men in
general impart to their boys, the kind of role models the boys
can emulate, and the role schools, through a deliberate curricu-
lum ought to play. For McCauley, gender equality and respect
for the opposite sex should be systematically woven into the
school curriculum if we are to socialize our boys to be better
men. I couldn’t agree more. As I will show in the pen-ultimate
section of this article Masolo (2010) rejects cultures that teach
children that males are more valuable than females. Personally I
reject the gendering of roles which privileges one gender over
the other.
What I am trying to understand in this article is ways in
which individuals ought to treat one another. For instance, what
should frame the ways in which we ought to treat one another,
and in turn how ought others to treat us were they to find them-
selves in circumstance that put their conduct on the spotlight?
The reader will notice that I use the notion of “ought” to make a
case for moral conduct. The reason for this, Scottish philoso-
pher Alasdair MacIntyre (1959: p. 457) explains, is that the
notion of “ought” is only explicable in terms of the notion of a
consensus of interest. To say that we ought to do something is
to affirm that there is a commonly accepted rule; and the exis-
tence of such a rule presupposes a consensus of opinion as to
where our common interests lie. Thus the concept of “ought” is
logically dependent on the concept of a common interest and
can only be explained in terms of it. Greenspan (2007: p. 172)
concurs. She argues that “when we say that someone morally
ought not to harm others, perhaps all we are saying is that he
has a certain kind of reason not to, one that wins out against any
opposing reasons such as those touting benefits to him of ig-
noring others’ concerns”. Thus “the good” or “what ought to
be” does not reside in some abstracted, conceptual “moral or-
2See Moeketsi Letseka (2012) “In Defence of Ubuntu”, Studies in Philoso-
and Education, 31
, 47-60.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
der” with its own existence “out there” but occurs in specific
instances in which persons discover what is right to do and then
do it (Crysdale, 1987: p. 105).
Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer provides useful
insights here. In his two books, Writings on an Ethical Life and
How are we to live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest, Singer
(2002, 1997) expounds on what ought to shape our moral atti-
tudes and humane treatment of others. He picks out four critical
sayings on the “moral law” or the “golden rule”, which he sug-
gests ought to guide the way we treat others at all times:
“Love thy neigh bor as yourself” (Jesus).
“What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor” (Rabbi
“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others”
“Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to
himself (The Mahabharata).
What seems to be presumed in these sayings is that individu-
als are capable of reasoning and placing themselves in the shoes
of those they are most likely to hurt by their actions; they are
capable of judging if their intended actions have the potential to
cause pain that even they would not endure, and that they take
responsibility for their own actions (Wiredu, 1992). It is
Singer’s (1997: p. 201) contention that ethics is everywhere in
our daily lives. It lies behind many of our choices, whether
personal or political, or bridging the division between the two.
These views resonate with Wiredu’s (1992: p. 193) position
that morality is not only universal, but essential to all human
cultures. For Wiredu, morality is observance of rules for the
harmonious adjustment of the interests of the individual to
those of others in society. He contends that the imperative for
morality should be: “in all inter-personal situations put yourself
in the skin of the other and see if you can contemplate the con-
sequences of your proposed action with equanimity”. I fully
support this view.
Ubuntu/Botho’s Response to Incidents of
Moral Indiscretion
The question, how should ubuntu/botho respond to premedi-
tated murder, muti killings, burning of the elderly people on
suspicion of witchcraft, homophobic killings, and other such
moral indiscretions, places ubuntu/botho morality on the spot-
light. The issues raised by the above question are pertinent to
ubuntu/botho given that ubuntu/botho is a normative concept.
Just to recap on how the normative aspects of ubuntu/botho
have been theorized, Broodryk (2002: p. 13) describes it as “a
comprehensive ancient African worldview based on the values
of intense humanness, caring, sharing, respect, compassion and
associated values”. Ramose (2006: p. 366) contends that ub-
untu/botho represents the epistemological paradigm that in-
forms the cultural practices, including the law, of the Bantu-
speaking peoples. In another publication Ramose (2002) locates
ubuntu/botho within the realm of the African existential world
and African conceptions of knowledge. He describes ub-
untu/botho as the wellspring flowing with African ontology and
epistemology. Botho features prominently in debates on Seso-
tho literary works where it is regarded as “the full expression of
one’s humanity” (Shanafelt, 1988: p. 51).
Viewed from within traditional African thought ubuntu/
botho can be said to articulate our communal inter-connected-
ness, our common humanity, our interdependence and our
common membership to a community. Most importantly, ub-
untu/botho raises very strong normative issues. As Metz (2007:
p. 323) observes, ubuntu/botho grounds a normative ethical
theory of right action, analytically setting aside ubuntu/botho as
a comprehensive worldview or a description of a way of life as
a whole. In another publication Metz and Gaie (2010: p. 285)
contend that this grounding is premised on the assumption that
in African moral theory, actions are right roughly insofar as
they are a matter of living harmoniously with others or honor-
ing communal relationships. Masolo (2010: p. 249) echoes
similar sentiments in his observation that the sense of belonging,
or the realization and acceptance that the self is located in the
midst of others, becomes the basis of his or her moral outlook
within the context of a common set of values. Within this mode
of thought, no person is considered to be a self-sufficient entity
in and for him or herself. Rather, the existence of others is an
essential part of the very structure of the self, from which ema-
nates the communitarian exigency. For Masolo, the community
is thus crucially differentiated from the “masses”. It is not just a
collectivity. Rather, it is built through deeds in which are in-
scribed a person’s contribution to the building of the commu-
It can be inferred from the above analysis that ubuntu/botho
morality would eschew the type of moral indiscretions that are
the subject of this article. In sub-Saharan African moral thought
the expression: “Motho ke motho ka batho babang (Sotho
languages) or “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (Nguni lan-
guages), indicates some descriptive claims about the depend-
ence of a human being, particularly a child, on other human
beings for her survival or for the course her life takes (Metz &
Gaie, 2010: p. 275). For Louw (2006: p. 161), umuntu ngu-
muntu ngabantu articulates a basic respect for compassion.
Thus umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is both a factual description
and a rule of conduct or social ethic. It not only describes hu-
man beings as “being-with-others”, but it also prescribes how
human beings should relate to others: that is, what being-
with-others should be all about. French philosopher Jean-Paul
Sartre cogently articulates the notion of being-with-others in his
book Being and Nothingness. Sartre (2003: p. 434) argues that
we discover ourselves not in conflict with the other but in
community with him. For Sartre (2003: p. 435), the “we” in-
cludes a plurality of subjectives which recognize one another as
subjectivities. The “we” is a certain particular experience which
is produced in special cases on the foundation of being-for-
others in general. The being-for-others precedes and founds the
being-with-others (Sartre, 2003: p. 436). Louw (2006: p. 167)
echoes similar sentiment to Sartre’s above in his observation
that ubuntu dictates that if we are to be human, we need to rec-
ognize the genuine otherness of our fellow citizens; acknowl-
edge the diversity of languages, histories, values, and customs,
all of which constitute the South African society. Indeed for
Louw (2006: p. 169), respecting the historicity of the other
means respecting his/her dynamic nature or process nature. An
ubuntu perception of the other is never fixed or rigidly closed,
but adjustable and open-ended. It allows the other to be, to be-
Adding to the above voices Nussbaum (2003: p. 21) con-
tends that ubuntu/botho is the capacity in African culture to
express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony, and human-
ity. She argues that ubuntu sees community rather than self-
determination as the essential aspect of personhood. People are
distinctive beings, able to recognize and acknowledge each
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 339
other through mutual encounters and cultural integration (Nuss-
baum, 2003: p. 22). Thus through ubuntu/botho, “our deepest
moral obligation is to become more fully human” (Shutte,
2001). My own view is that it would be uncharacteristic for an
individual who is sufficiently immersed in ubuntu/botho to
contemplate rape or murder because anyone who rapes or mur-
ders becomes, as it were, depersonalized. Elsewhere I have
argued that it would be illogical for anyone with ubuntu/botho
to demonstrate concern for others and at the same time have the
inclination to rape, because rape is an affront to, and is incon-
sistent with ubuntu/botho moral norms and values (Letseka,
2000: p. 186). The reason for this is that ubuntu/botho is a nor-
mative concept that prescribes desirable and accepted forms of
human conduct in a particular community of people. We are
batho or abantu (persons) because we live lives that are consis-
tent with communally accepted and desirable ethical standards
(Letseka, 2000: p. 186). While ubuntu/botho ethic entails some
elements of the “golden rule”, it extends beyond just requiring
one to treat others as one would like to be treated in that it en-
compasses a multiplicity of normative values such as caring,
sharing, respect for others, compassion, altruism, kindness,
generosity, benevolence, and courtesy. In the next section I
tease out conceptions of personhood with a view to showing
how personhood plays itself out with respect to morality.
Conceptions of Personhood
The notion of ubuntu/botho, understood as personhood and
morality is at the heart of my argument in this article. It is my
view that personhood is linked to humane conduct, and that
humane conduct is synonymous with good moral conduct.
Concomitantly, good moral conduct implies treating others at
all times with fairness, dignity and justice. Good moral conduct
is predicated on individuals reasoning about their intended ac-
tions and making rational choices to act in a particular way, and
to avoid acting in other ways that might be deemed to be an
affront to good moral conduct. This view of morality is attrib-
uted to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who maintained
that morality is encapsulated in a rule which he called the cate-
gorical imperative. Kant argued that the categorical imperative
is a command or duty to act according to an objective principle
of reason. Such a command requires that we should act in such
a way that we can also will that our maxim should become a
universal law (Kant, 2005: p. 22). For Kant (2005: p. 29), “to
justify the categorical imperative we have to show that a fully
rational agent would necessarily act in a certain way”. Bandura
(1999: p. 193) cautions though that the regulation of humane
conduct involves much more than moral reasoning. He argues
that a complete theory of moral agency must link moral
knowledge and reasoning to moral action. Bandura draws on
social cognitive theory to argue that moral reasoning is trans-
lated into actions through self-regulatory mechanisms rooted in
moral standards and self-sanctions by which moral agency is
exercised. This way a proactive form of morality is expressed
in the power to behave humanely (Bandura, 1999: p. 194). In a
humane society, all human beings have a right to pursue hap-
piness. In turn, that right goes beyond one’s right to the duty to
respect this same right in others, not to hinder it, perhaps even
to promote it. By implication then, in a humane society, there
has to be respect for variety and difference.
What is Masolo’s (2010, 2004) view on personhood? Masolo
(2010: p. 13) uses the concept of juok, in the Luo language of
Eastern Africa to delineate the notion of personhood. He writes
that in the social and moral senses, juok means an anti-social
attitude and character. Behavior is branded as juok if it is inten-
tionally aimed at harming others or if it is intentionally weird
and out of line with expectations of reasonableness toward
other people and/or things (Masolo, 2010: p. 199). Thus the
concept (of juok) draws attention to the imagination and prac-
tice of right conduct. It is the moral guiding principle in the
interactive inter-subjectivity of everyday life. Rooted in a com-
munalistic ethic, the concept of juok underlines a strategy for
containing socially destructive conduct by reminding people of
the deviant and stigmatizing nature of antisocial behavior. In its
denotation of character, juok is a descriptive term used to order
the everyday reality of social and moral behavior of individuals
and groups (Masolo, 2010: p. 185). For Masolo (2010: p. 139)
then, because personhood is socially generated, interaction or
inter-subjective penetration, not aggregation, is the formative
foundation of human nature and the conduit through which
humans develop their sense and basis of moral and cognitive
values. He elaborates: “By means of communicative interaction
we become more than just human beings: we become persons”
(Masolo, 2010: p. 142). This view of personhood resonates
with the view advocated by Menkiti (1984: p. 171). The latter
advocates a conception of personhood found in African tradi-
tional thought which defines a person by reference to the envi-
roning community. He writes: “morality demands a point of
view best described as one of beingness-with-others” (Menkiti,
2004: p. 324). In this regard community plays a vital role both
as catalyst and as prescriber of norms in the stated journey of
the individual towards personhood.
Masolo’s (2004: p. 27) view on morality therefore is that
“because morality is a relational category, the moral potentiali-
ties we bear enable us to imaginatively project ourselves into
the situation of others, making it possible for us to make judg-
ments about others’ cases as if they were our own”. He notes
that “conflicts between communal demands and individual
choices clearly raise issues of the location of moral reason that
guides the idea of the moral good” (Masolo, 2003: p. 31). Is the
individual then as autonomous as some schools of liberalism
demand? Masolo (2010: p. 222) is explicit in chapter 6 of his
book The Self and Community in a Changing World that com-
munitarianism “is the antithesis of individualism, but its mani-
festations in intellectual traditions around the world reveal im-
portant regional modifications”. One might ask then: should the
community be the sole source of moral reason? Citing contem-
porary Western communitarians such as Alasdair MacIntyre,
Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor, Masolo
(2010: p. 226) notes that “while not denying the autonomy of
the individual, they emphasize the significance of her participa-
tion in as well as dependence on the community for her sense of
self, for her freedom, and for her moral development and
agency. According to this view, individuals are constituted by
the institutions and practices of which they are part and their
rights and obligations derive from those same institutions”. For
Masolo (2010: p. 241), knowledge of communitarian values is
passed on to individuals at crucial points in their growth and
development from childhood to adulthood. This is done both
systematically through well-defined procedures and randomly
in the course of everyday life where people learn from the ex-
amples of others, from various modes of speech. Thus in Afri-
can modes of thought, the concept of personhood is closely
related to the defining capacities of humans. In this sense, being
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
a person is attained through an educational process that intensi-
fies at every stage in a person’s growth and development
(Masolo, 2010: p. 241).
The key issue I am grappling with in this article is how one
ought to behave in order to live a life that is shaped by ub-
untu/botho morality? In a sense, what sort of personhood is
required to enable one to live a life that is imbued with ub-
untu/botho morality? For Masolo (2010: p. 174), “a social con-
structivist theory of personhood claims that ideas about the
nature of persons are formed in the course of society’s value
choices and practices that cohere with their other views and
interpretations of the general nature of the universe”. According
to this logic personhood is constituted by the theories, practices,
and institutions that a society may deem meaningful to its pecu-
liar experiences. The issue at stake here is whether the location
of morality should be at community level or at the level of the
individual? The work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor
is very instructive. Taylor (1991: p. 161) argues that often the
choice is not simply between a close, family-like community
and a modern, impersonal society. Instead it is possible for
someone to have communitarian or holist ontology and to value
liberalism’s individual rights (Abbey & Taylor, 1996: p. 3). For
Wiredu (1996: p. 72), the distinction between communalism
and individualism is one of degree only. A considerable value
may be attached to communality in individualistic societies,
just as individuality is not necessarily trivialized within com-
munalism. The two orientations can co-exist in different sectors
of the same society. I now turn to Basotho indigenous educa-
Educating for Ubuntu/Botho through
Basotho Indigenous Education
The notion of African traditional education or “indigenous
education” has been well documented (Kingsley, 2010; Marah,
2006; Mapesela, 2004; Maharasoa & Maharasoa, 2004; Ntsi-
hlele, 2003; Adeyemi & Adeyinka, 2003, 2002; Matšela, 1990,
1979). In this section I briefly explore the notion of Basotho
“indigenous education” as delineated by Matšela (1990, 1979).
As I mentioned in the introduction I have chosen Basotho in-
digenous education because it is my own native knowledge, and
one with which I am not only familiar, but one about which I
can also expound uninhibitedly. I am persuaded that useful
lessons can be drawn from the way Basotho “indigenous educa-
tion” was used to create citizens with the kind of personhood
that was deemed necessary for “good” human conduct among
Basotho communities. Again as I indicated in the introduction I
take education to be more than just schooling, but to refer to a
process of transmitting the culture of society from one genera-
tion to the other (Adeyinka, 1993). Adeyinka (2000: pp. 19-20)
defines education as the process of transmitting the culture of a
society from one generation to the other, the process by which
the adult members of a society bring up the young ones. What I
attempt to do in this section is to reflect on education and mo-
rality in Africa (Adeyinka & Ndwapi, 2002). Adeyemi and
Adeyinka (2002: p. 223) note that before the arrival of the mis-
sionaries and the introduction of Western civilization into Af-
rica “education on the continent was purely indigenous”, that is,
it was “generally known as African traditional education or
“indigenous education” of various communities” (Adeyemi &
Adeyinka, 2003: p. 425).
Indigenous education in Africa was intimately integrated
with the social, cultural, artistic, religious, and recreational life
of the ethnic group (Marah, 2006: p. 15). Masolo (2010: p. 251)
endorses this view. In what he terms “social education” he ar-
gues that in most traditional African societies individuals were
taught about the structure of their social environment and their
place in that structure. This knowledge unveiled to them not
only how they related to the whole but also how they were ex-
pected to behave toward everyone within it, social expectations
that were determined by how the initiate was related to each
member. Thus the education that the African youth received
fitted the group and the expected social roles in society were
learned by adulthood. The “African youth’s ethnic group and
community were held by rules and regulations, values and so-
cial sanctions, approval, rewards and punishments, etc., into
which he was inducted” (Marah, 2006: p. 17). It might be ar-
gued that African indigenous education promoted gendered
roles in society. Traditional Africanists might not deny that in
traditional African societies and their cultures there were spe-
cific roles for males and specific roles for females.
Can we pass judgment on how these societies were ordered?
What yardstick would we be using? How fair will such a yard-
stick be? Will it enable us to understand such societies within
their historical and cultural context or as gender relations are
perceived in our times? Nzegwu (1998: p. 602) sensitizes us to
the importance of historicity. She argues that historicizing in-
terpretations involves “using appropriate yardsticks so that the
time frames are not illicitly collapsed and conceptual frames of
cultures are not illicitly switched”. However, I should mention
that as a modern cosmopolitan male I would be appalled by the
gendering of roles that privileges one gender over the other. As
Masolo (2010: pp. 52-53) points out, if our cultures teach us
from childhood that males are more valuable than females, we
are likely to grow up believing that such a statement of gender
inequality is a true description of the social order, and if we are
male, it may lead us to believe that we are justified in treating
women as unequals in the family and in the workplace. Masolo
(2010: p. 251) is unequivocal that a person is morally good
when he strictly observes the rules that separate gendered
spaces in society and where such separation is made out of
respect rather than to discriminate. Reminiscing about his ex-
periences of gender relations in his hometown of Mombasa,
Kenya, Masolo (2010: p. 132) recalls that in the good but long-
gone old days, everyone knew that at the taxi stop mothers,
people of the female gender, children, and the elderly boarded
and alighted first and that no one pushed anyone else. These
mores were so well known that no one needed to be reminded
of them. Masolo informs us that in Swahili this is known as
ustaarabu—social civility.
I am persuaded that Basotho indigenous education also
strove for the kind of social civility to which Masolo refers
above. But I want to take the argument even further by sug-
gesting that it was also functional and participatory. Young
people learned through initiation ceremonies, work, play, oral
literature, ditśomo-Sotho folk tales or legends, and dilotho-
riddles (Futhwa, 2011). I will say more on ditśomo in a short
while. For now I want to briefly commend on the non-formal
nature of Basotho indigenous education. Matšela (1979: p. 188)
notes that non-formal education comprises a variety of forms of
training and education taking place anywhere and anytime,
other than in initiation academies, and specialized professional
training. He argues that the education of a Mosotho child en-
tailed cultural values, philosophy, personal and family respon-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 341
sibilities and duties to the clan and the people (Matšela, 1979: p.
159), or what Masolo (2010: p. 173) calls “a mix of education
and trial-and-error experiences”. He contends that moral educa-
tion and the acquisition of the values that sustain the social
order are part of initiation rituals in most African societies.
These rituals, which are an important aspect of the rites of pas-
sage, “create” a person out of the untamed and unmolded body
of a child (Masolo, 2010: p. 242).
My own initiation into family responsibilities began as a herd
boy tasked to look after my father’s cattle. Herding was a re-
sponsibility every Mosotho boy was expected to carry out with
distinction. A herd boy who excelled in his tasks and responsi-
bilities was known as a Motjodi—the Euplectes progne, or a
long-tailed widowbird, implying one who leads. Mapesela
(2004: p. 322) argues that Basotho indigenous education incul-
cated good ethics, morals and values such as humaneness (ub-
untu), neighborliness, responsibility, and respect for self and
others. It is his view that Basotho indigenous education “can
still be used to encourage people to become better members of
society, as well as to help curb certain social problems ... a lack
of neighborliness (leading to heartlessness, theft, killing and
rape), a lack of ubuntu (resulting in an uncaring and unpatriotic
society); as well as a lack of good ethics (leading to an irre-
sponsible, lazy and poor society)”. In a way, Basotho indige-
nous education could be a useful response to Pastor Ray Mc-
Cauley’s concerns above on the need to socialize boys to be
better men, and I should add, girls to be better women. Thus
indigenous education is a process of cultural transmission and
renewal whereby the adult members of society carefully guide
the development of infants and young children, initiating them
into the culture of society (Adeyemi & Adeyinka, 2002: p.
African indigenous education was also communal. Adeyinka
and Ndwapi (2002: p. 18) argue that given that most communi-
ties in pre-colonial Africa were agrarian, all citizens would
engage in the clearing of individual member’s farm-bush, and
would work together during planting and harvesting season.
Elsewhere I have remarked on the letsema-cooperative com-
munity farming among the Basotho where I note that “four or
more families would come together and agree on a duty roster
that would allow them to cultivate each of their fields on agreed
days to make them ready for the planting season” (Letseka,
2000: p. 183). But letsema was not just a cooperative commu-
nity effort. On the contrary, through letsema members of the
community recognized that it would be difficult and slow for
individual families to complete the cultivation of their fields on
time if each family was to go it alone (Letseka, 2000: p. 184).
As Adeyinka and Ndwapi (2002: p. 18) point out, part of the
purpose of African traditional education was the development
in children of a communal spirit, by which each individual saw
himself/herself as part of a bigger unit, working and living to-
gether for the common good. It can therefore be reasonably
inferred that African traditional education inculcated in young
people feelings of belonging and interdependence between all
the members of the community, or what Masolo (2010: p. 240)
calls “a life of cohesion, or positive integration with others”.
Let me now briefly commend on two key aspects of Basotho
“indigenous education” that I regard as essential to the devel-
opment of personhood. These are lebollo and ditśomo. First,
lebollo or initiation school. Matšela (1990: pp. 53-56) contends
that lebollo aimed to equip youngsters with competencies that
are necessary for adulthood. These included bohloeki (purity),
which is advocacy for cleanliness both in its literal form as it
relates to hygienic living, and in its metaphorical form as it
relates to mind and soul or inner self. Lebollo sought to instill
competencies such as thuto-kelello (cognitive engagement). that
is, the ability to think strategically and at the highest level. The
initiates were initiated3 in a problem-based education. They
were presented with problems pertaining to real life situations
in society and challenged to develop long-term solutions. They
were instructed on makhabane (virtues), which included indus-
try or hard work, respect for persons, humility, perseverance,
service to the nation, patriotism, leruo (wealth), makunutu a
sechaba (national secrets or classified information), bonatla
(warriorship), and boqapi le bokheleke (creativity and eloqu-
ence). With respect to leruo [wealth] Maharasoa and Mahara-
soa (2004: p. 111) observe that the Sesotho proverb: “mphe-
mphe e ea lapisa, motho o khonoa ke sa hae (begging begets
poverty; an individual is better served by the sweat of his or her
brow) was used to fuel the spirit of self-reliance and to dis-
courage economic inertia. It thereforen seems reasonable to
argue that among other things, the lebollo sought to instill those
virtues that are regarded as worthwhile and sustainable in tradi-
tional African thought.
Second, ditśomo-folk tales that are orally passed down from
one generation to the next and become part of the community’s
tradition. Coplan (1993: p. 92) observes that like auriterary
metaphors, ditśomo are intended to startle untamed meanings
from their burrows. They are full of surprises and attacks rang-
ing from the uncanny to the fantastical, with mythical creatures,
wild animals, and even wilder humans pursuing improbable
stratagems. But at the heart of ditśomo are home truths about
the nature of humanity and society, which is why ditśomo are
so central to Basotho social philosophy. One of the most popu-
lar tśomo among the Basotho is the tale of Khodumodumo and
moshanyanaSankatana. Khodumodumo is a monster that em-
bodies the white South African state, which envelops the black
multitudes into bondage. Sankatana represents the young lib-
erator. Khodumodumo appears and consumes the entire Basotho
nation in its wake except one pregnant woman who escapes by
camouflaging herself by smearing her body with ashes and cow
dung instead of ochre. Khodumodumo mistakes her for a soil-
encrusted stone and spares her. As it departs Khodumodumo
gets stuck at the mountain pass and cannot cross to the other
side. Meanwhile the woman gives birth to a boy who miracu-
lously grows into a young man, fully accoutered with a blanket,
a spear and shield, and who identifies himself as Sankatana (the
ragged-one) (Coplan, 1992). Sankatana battles the monster
with his spear, kills it and frees the captives. Coplan (1992: p.
93) argues that the story of Khodumodumo (culture villain) and
Sankatana (culture hero) plays around with a series of cultur-
ally sentient metaphoric tropes, bringing them into metonymic
relationship and creating a dialogue between social ideology
and practice. Centrally, it is the tale of a hero who defeats the
villain and frees the people from political and cultural bondage.
By way of closing let me hasten to mention that while I sup-
port the principles of Basotho indigenous education as ex-
pounded above, especially its emphasis on grounding the know-
ledge of young people in community values, I also recognize
the importance of exposing the young people to the wider world
3The notion of “Education as initiation” was given prominence by Brit-
ish philosopher of education Richard Stanley Peters in his inaugural
lecture delivered at the Institute of Education, University of London, 9
December 1963.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
and to different cultures, or what is commonly known as cos-
mopolitanism (Gitlin, 2006; Nussbaum, 2002). I cognizant that
nations are not natural, organic, objective, or anything of that
sort but are the inventions“constructions”of intellectuals
and the stories that they tell about history and culture (Gitlin,
2006: pp. 130-131). As Nussbaum (2002: p. 9) cogently puts it,
to be a citizen of the world one does not need to give up local
identifications, which can frequently be a source of great rich-
ness in life. Instead, we should think of ourselves not as devoid
of local affiliation. Nussbaum (2002: p. 8) makes a case for
education for world citizenship on three grounds. First, the
study of humanity as it is realized in the whole world is valu-
able for self-knowledge: we see ourselves more clearly when
we see our ways in relation to those of other reasonable people.
Second, only by making our fundamental allegiance to the
world community of justice and reason can we avoid the dan-
gers of local allegiances and partisan loyalties. And third, cos-
mopolitan politics recognizes in people what is especially fun-
damental about them, most worthy of respect and acknowl-
edgment: their aspirations to justice and goodness and their
capacities for reasoning in this connection. If educating for
ubuntu/botho was to focus only on local, African or indigenes,
and preclude exposure to what the rest of the world has to offer,
I would regard such an education as simplistic, parochial, anti-
educational and not wo rthwhile pursuing.
What I have attempted to do in this article is to highlight in-
cidents of moral indiscretion and to warn against their implica-
tions for our taken-for-granted notions of good moral conduct. I
described such incidents as shocking and horrifying to morally
discerning individuals. I sketched the underlying assumptions
of Basotho “indigenous education” with a view to reflecting on
lessons that can be learnt from such an education in order to
“create citizens” that are immersed in ubuntu/botho, understood
as personhood, humaneness and morality. My view is that in-
voking the notion of Basotho indigenous education is neither
nostalgic yearning for the long gone past, nor the movement to
retreat to the “caves” and “bushes”. Instead it is recognition that
some of the values and ideas of indigenous African systems can
add value to the way contemporary African cultures and poli-
tics are ordered. If we agree that ubuntu/botho is a cohesive
moral value that grounds a normative ethical theory of right
action as Teffo (1994) and Metz (2007) argue, then it follows
logically that ubuntu/botho would eschew rape, assault, domes-
tic abuse, murder, muti killings or homophobic killings because
these would be incompatible with ubuntu/botho morality. I ar-
gued that educating the young people for ubuntu/botho through
Basotho indigenous education has the potential to contribute
towards the ideal of creating citizens that are inclined to treat-
ing others with fairness, dignity and justice at all times. I show-
ed that among the Basotho indigenous education was anchored
in communal experiences such as letsema or cooperative com-
munity farming, the institution of lebollo, the telling of ditśomo,
or folk tales, which are critical to Basotho social philosophy.
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