Written by Nkuli Shongwe
The Humanist Philosophy of Ubuntu was introduced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African cleric and theologian, one of the main Leaders of the South African anti-Apartheid, and Human Rights movement. One of the many meanings of Ubuntu is: I am because we are. The word holds a meaning of collectiveness and interconnectedness in humans. The humanist philosophy can be used to advocate for the economic and social justice through cooperative economics for people who identify as identify as women, LGBTQIA, African, and African American. Economic justice is a tool that promotes sustainable economic growth and restorative community wealth in historically marginalized and continuously exploited communities.
It’s been a year since I was introduced to the cooperative movement. Before that, I never thought much of co-ops, I barely knew of co-ops- in the formal sense. I was fascinated with cooperatives and became interested in learning more about their history. I had this burning question about the first coops and where they were established. As I was doing more research to familiarize myself, I quickly discovered that most of the information I found online and the narrative in the coop world stated that cooperatives started in Europe in the 19th century and the Rochdale pioneers were established as pioneers whole catapulted the modern cooperative movement in the 20th century.
During my research, I was introduced to Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book– Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. Dr. Nembhard’s book is the only book written in the 21st century about African American cooperative business ownership and its place in the movements for Black civil rights and economic equality. It is one of two books ever written recollecting the history of black cooperatives. The only other text in existence W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1907 Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans.
What was fascinating about Dr. Nembhard’s book was the she debunked the dominant narrative about the establishment of the first cooperatives. She details incredible history and stories proving that African Americans have had a long-rich history of cooperative ownership driven by market failures and racial discrimination that predates that cooperatives established in England during the 19th century. The revelation came when I read that coops were not always formal structures. There were many informal forms of cooperating that were powerful such as the underground rail road, programs led by the Black Panthers, mutual aid societies, tilling kitchens- and list goes on.
Essentially we have been cooperating as since the beginning of time. After pouring, through the research and learning more about the informal coop structures used and how they were used for survival, I began asking myself- where are my people in this story? Do my people have a history of cooperating and where can I find this history and information. I put in the words South African coops in google and google scholar and I was met with an extensive list of formal cooperatives existing in all provinces in South Africa.
I was astonished and found myself going down rabbit holes. Once I pulled myself out of the rabbit hole, I thought of the informal ways of cooperating and the list was also endless. I thought of family weddings or funerals where all the mothers and women of the family would gather to make a beautiful feast. Each woman would have a task from cutting the vegetables or meat, cooking, plating up, and washing the dishes- there were no formal procedures. Women would come together and contribute where they were needed. I thought of stockvels- invitation only clubs of twelve or more people serving as rotating credit unions or saving scheme in South Africa where members contribute fixed sums of money to a central fund on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Stockvels have been around since the 19th century and were used fight against colonialism.
The philosophy of UBUNTU is prevalent throughout the cooperative movement and the fight for economic justice. Cooperatives use a human based approach to build community wealth. Cooperation is driven by trust, care, and empathy for each other. The cooperative movement encourages us to participate in a liberatory economy that is regenerative and works to actively challenge a racialized and gendered economic system.