Bryony Vince - The (Mis)use of Indigenous Knowledge: How Ubuntu is used as a tool for peacebuilding in South Africa

Person standing with their back to the camera in a shirt that reads 'the foundation of every state is the empowerment of its youth'
Field photograph taken during an observation with Africa Unite.

About my PhD

My research looks at whether and how the African worldview of ‘Ubuntu’ is useful as a tool for transforming conflict and building peace in South Africa. It asks: How do people understand Ubuntu and practice its values in their everyday lives; How has Ubuntu been used/misused by government, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and community organisations to inform peacebuilding?, and; What can this tell us about using contextually specific or indigenous knowledge for peacebuilding more broadly, in both theory and practice? To do this, I spent four months in Cape Town conducting observations and speaking with individuals in local communities, NGOs, and community organisations, as well as peace and conflict practitioners. 

Ubuntu is broadly understood as a set of values or a ‘worldview’ that views human beings as inherently interconnected and unconditionally dependent on one another. It therefore stresses the importance of community, togetherness, sharing, generosity and selflessness. Because of this, and because it was referred to by political leaders during South Africa’s transition from apartheid, scholars have pointed to Ubuntu as an example of an indigenous, contextually appropriate, alternative way to understand how to build peace in South Africa, that isn’t based on top-down ‘Western’ experiences and understandings (which has typically been the case in the theory and practice of peacebuilding for decades). My research seeks to find out whether this is in fact the case, what this approach looks like, and how useful Ubuntu has been on the ground for transforming violence and conflict into more sustainable, peaceful relationships in communities in Cape Town.

Cape Town underneath Table Mountain.
Field photograph of Cape Town underneath Table Mountain.

Why I'm Interested in this topic

During my undergraduate degree in International Relations and Politics here at Sheffield, I learnt that a lot of what we’re taught about history and international politics is largely based on European/North American understandings and experiences of the world. I therefore became interested in a lot of the literature looking at more diverse approaches to International Relations from around the world (Global IR), and ‘anti-Eurocentric’ approaches that actively reject the assumption that Western experiences are universally applicable. This carried on into my Masters in International Politics, again here at Sheffield, where I learnt more about decolonial and intersectional approaches to the world that incorporate coloniality, race, class, gender, caste, sexuality, disability etc. I saw how this top-down, Western bias extends to how Western-led international organisations have approached peacebuilding initiatives in other countries, which have historically lacked any engagement with the knowledge and experiences of those directly impacted by the conflict. My Masters dissertation looked at how different worldviews from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East could be used to rearticulate how we understand key phenomena in International Relations, like sovereignty, security and peace – Ubuntu was one of these worldviews. 

My second Masters in social research methods, which I did at the Sheffield Methods Institute as part of the ESRC funded 1+3 PhD programme, taught me about the importance of decolonial and participatory research methods. I learnt how to conduct research that is respectful, non-extractive, reciprocal, and designed in collaboration with those at the centre of the issue – something my masters thesis lacked. All of this eventually influenced both my PhD topic and my approach to research in general, going forward. 

What's new about my work

The academic literature has theorised about how Ubuntu could be used as a bottom-up, indigenous approach to building peace at the local level in South Africa. There is, however, little to no empirical research looking at how ordinary people understand Ubuntu in their everyday lives, and whether it should, can or is being used in practice to inform peacebuilding initiatives in local communities. My research therefore responds to this need.  

A peaceful protest on the street facing a row of cliff faces and a blue sky
Field photograph taken of a peaceful march about land and housing inequality.

What impact my research could have

I hope to be able to provide a detailed and more grounded analysis of how local knowledge and values can be integrated into peacebuilding solutions, and the challenges of doing this in reality. In this case, this means listening to and understanding what approaches are working or would be useful to individuals and community members living in Cape Town. 

At the same time, I’m hoping to add more nuance to discussions around whether and how concepts, ideas and worldviews – particularly those originating outside of the West – are both used and misused in academic and policy spaces. It is vital that we draw on the knowledge and experiences of those at the centre of conflict, and use approaches to peacebuilding that are relevant to and respectful of that specific context. This must, however, be done in a way that does not romanticise or essentialise ‘indigenous’ knowledge, and is collaborative, non-extractive and relevant on the ground. There has been a tendency to latch on to ‘indigenous knowledge’ as a ‘decolonial’ alternative to International Relations phenomena, without fully understanding or interacting with the context in which that knowledge was derived/is used and the individuals who ascribe to it.

What's most interesting to me about my work

The people. I learned so much from the people and organisations I worked with in Cape Town, who were incredibly generous with sharing their knowledge and time. My favourite part of this whole process was listening to their experiences and learning about the incredible work they’re doing in communities. My PhD research is as much theirs as it is mine, and I’m so grateful to them. 

This PhD has also taught me the importance of conducting collaborative, participatory research that is co-designed by and relevant to those directly affected by the research. Doing this at PhD level is hard and imperfect, for various reasons, so my research is by no means a reflection of a truly co-produced project. That said, I’m grateful for the time it has given me to reflect on what kind of researcher I want to be going forward, and learn how to create truly collaborative, meaningful, impactful outcomes for people through my work in the future. 

I was also able to start learning isiXhosa as part of my PhD, which I’ve really enjoyed. 

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