In this article, I demonstrate that the term ‘ubuntu’ has frequently appeared in writing since at least 1846. I also analyse changes in how ubuntu has been defined in written sources in the period 1846 to 2011. The analysis shows that in written sources published prior to 1950, it appears that ubuntu is always defined as a human quality. At different stages during the second half of the 1900s, some authors began to define ubuntu more broadly: definitions included ubuntu as African humanism, a philosophy, an ethic, and as a worldview. Furthermore, my findings indicate that it was during the period from 1993 to 1995 that the Nguni proverb ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ (often translated as ‘a person is a person through other persons’) was used for the first time to describe what ubuntu is. Most authors today refer to the proverb when describing ubuntu, irrespective of whether they consider ubuntu to be a human quality, African humanism, a philosophy, an ethic, or a worldview.
South African Journal of Philosophy, 2011, Vol 30, Issue 3, p. 303-329