Ubuntu: An Underutilised Foundational Constitutional Principle of South African Environmental Law





ubuntu, indigenous values, foundational constitutional principles, constitutional and human rights litigation, environmental protection


This article uses the doctrinal legal research method to examine how ubuntu, the indigenous value of humaneness, can serve as a foundational constitutional principle of South Africa’s environmental law and governance framework. It argues that ubuntu has a role to play in the re-imagination of humanity’s relationship with the environment, particularly when its building blocks are embedded in law to address the deep socio-ecological crisis of the Anthropocene and when applied alongside conventional and customary principles of environmental law, such as the no-harm rule, the precautionary principle, the principle of prevention, intergenerational equity and sustainable development. In South Africa, ubuntu already enjoys judicial recognition as a foundational constitutional principle. Its moral and normative force offers an alternative foundation to build a stronger environmental law framework that can protect the vulnerable living order. In this article, the basic proposal is that ubuntu is an underutilised constitutional principle that could be applied by South African courts to environmental disputes. Its potential in the adjudication of environmental cases emanates from its origins as an indigenous value and from the benefits that foundational constitutional principles generally bring in constitutional and human rights litigation.


Addaney, Michael Boshoff, Elsabe and Olutola, Bamisaye. 2017. “The Climate Change and Human Rights Nexus in Africa Scientific.” Amsterdam LF 9: 5. https://doi.org/10.37974/ALF.304 DOI: https://doi.org/10.37974/ALF.304

Adelman, Sam. 2013. “Rio+20 Sustainable Injustice in a Time of Crisis.” Journal of Human Rights and the Environment 4 (1): 6–13. https://doi.org/10.4337/jhre.2013.01.01 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/jhre.2013.01.01

Bentrupperbäumer, Joan M, Day, Tara J and Reser, Joseph P. 2006. “Uses, Meanings and Understandings of Values in the Environmental and Protected Area Arena? A Consideration of “World Heritage” Values.” Society and Natural Resources 19: 723–741. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920600801140 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920600801140

Bosselmann, Klaus. 2010. “Losing the Forest for the Trees: Environmental Reductionism in the Law.” Sustainability 2 (8): 2424–2448. https://doi.org/10.3390/su2082424 DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/su2082424

Bryant, Alfred T. 1905. A Zulu-English Dictionary. Cape Town: Juta.

Cameron, Edwin. 2014. Justice: A Personal Account. Cape Town: Media24 Boeke (Pty) Ltd.

Chibvongodze, Danford T. 2016. “Ubuntu is not Only About the Human! An Analysis of the Role of African Philosophy and Ethics in Environment Management.” Journal of Human Ecology 53 (2): 157–166. https://doi.org/10.1080/09709274.2016.11906968 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09709274.2016.11906968

Church, Jacqueline. 2012. “Sustainable Development and the Culture of uBuntu.” De Jure 45 (3): 511–531. http://ref.scielo.org/xprqcy.

Davies, Margaret. 2017. Law Unlimited: Materialism, Pluralism, and Legal Theory: New York. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315775913 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315775913

Dube, Felix. 2022. “The Ethos of Tolerance of Diversity in Post-Apartheid Jurisprudence.” Obiter 43 (1): 124–141. https://doi.org/10.17159/obiter.v43i1.13504 DOI: https://doi.org/10.17159/obiter.v43i1.13504

Duit, Andreas, Peter H. Feindt, and James Meadowcroft. 2016. “Greening Leviathan: The Rise of the Environmental State?” Environmental Politics 25: 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2015.1085218 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2015.1085218

Grear, Anna. 2015. “Deconstructing Anthropos: A Critical Legal Reflection on ‘Anthropocentric’ Law and Anthropocene ‘Humanity’.” Law and Critique 26 (3): 225–249. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10978-015-9161-0 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10978-015-9161-0

Grear, Anna. 2017. “Foregrounding Vulnerability: Materiality’s Porous Affectability as a Methodological Platform.” In Research Methods in Environmental Law, edited by Andreas Brooks Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Victoria, 3–28. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781784712570.00007 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781784712570.00007

Hughes, Patricia. 1999. “Recognising Substantive Equality as a Foundational Constitutional Principle.” Dalhousie LJ 22: 5–50.

Kotzé, Louis J. 2019. “The Anthropocene, Earth System Vulnerability and Socio-Ecological Injustice in an Age of Human Rights.” JHRE 10 (1): 62–85. https://doi.org/10.4337/jhre.2019.01.04 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/jhre.2019.01.04

Kotze, Louis J, Sam Adelman, and Felix Dube. 2023. “The Problem with Sustainable Development in the Anthropocene Epoch: Reimagining International Environmental Law’s Mantra Principle Through Ubuntu.” In The Routledge Handbook of Law and the Anthropocene, edited by Peter D Burdon and James Martel, 3–17. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003388081-2 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003388081-2

Langa, Pius. 2006. “Transformative Constitutionalism.” Stell LR 3: 351–360.

Le Grange, Lesley. 2015. “Ubuntu/Botho as Ecophilosophy and Ecosophy.” Journal of Human Ecology 49 (3): 301–308. https://doi.org/10.1080/09709274.2015.11906849 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09709274.2015.11906849

Meierhenrich, Jens. 2008. The Legacies of Law: Long-Run Consequences of Legal Development in South Africa, 1652-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511510571 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511510571

Mugumbate, Jacob Rugare, and Admire Chereni. 2020. “Now, the Theory of Ubuntu has its Space in Social Work.” African Journal of Social Work 10 (1): v–xvii.

Murcott, Melanie, and Werner Van der Westhuizen. 2015. “The Ebb and Flow of the Application of the Principle of Subsidiarity–Critical Reflections on Motau and My Vote Counts.” Constitutional Court Review 7 (1): 43–67. https://doi.org/10.2989/CCR/2015.0003 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2989/CCR/2015.0003

Mwanza, Rosemary. 2022. “Framing the Normative Role of the Right to a Healthy Environment: Thinking with Internormativity, Embodiment and Emergence.” Journal of Human Rights and the Environment 13: 349–370. https://doi.org/10.4337/jhre.2022.02.02 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/jhre.2022.02.02

Praeg, Leonhard. 2008. “An Answer to the Question: What is [ubuntu].” South African Journal of Philosophy 27 (4): 367–385. https://doi.org/10.4314/sajpem.v27i4.31525 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4314/sajpem.v27i4.31525

Terreblanche, Christelle. 2018. “Ubuntu and the Struggle for an African Eco-Socialist Alternative.” In The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives, edited by Vishwas Satgar, 168–189. Johannesburg: Wits University Press. https://doi.org/10.18772/22018020541.13 DOI: https://doi.org/10.18772/22018020541.13

Van Norren, Dorine E. 2020. “The Sustainable Development Goals Viewed through Gross National Happiness, Ubuntu, and Buen Vivir.” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 20: 431–458. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-020-09487-3 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-020-09487-3

Venter, Francois. 2010. “Liberal Democracy: The Unintended Consequence. South African Constitution-Writing Propelled by the Winds of Globalisation.” South African Journal on Human Rights 26 (1): 45–65. https://doi.org/10.1080/19962126.2010.11864975 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19962126.2010.11864975


Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.

National Environmental Management Act 107, 1998.

Case law

Baleni v Minister of Mineral Resources 2019 (1) All SA 358 (GP).

Beadica 231 CC v Trustees for the Time Being of the Oregon Trust 2020 (9) BCLR 1098 (CC).

Everfresh Market Virginia (Pty) Ltd v Shoprite Checkers (Pty) Ltd 2012 (1) SA 256 (CC).

Fuel Retailers Association of Southern Africa v Director-General: Environmental Management, Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment, Mpumalanga Province 2007 (10) BCLR 1059 (CC).

Mphela v Engelbrecht 2005 (2) All SA 135 (LCC).

Municipality of the City of Port Elizabeth v Prut 1996 (1) All SA 272 (SE).

Qozeleni v Minister of Law and Order 1994 (1) BCLR 75 (E).

S v Makwanyane 1995 (6) BCLR 665 (CC).

Sustaining the Wild Coast NPC v Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy 2022 (1) All SA 796 (ECG). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/bhj.2023.26

United Democratic Movement v Speaker of the National Assembly 2017 (5) SA 300 (CC).



How to Cite

Dube, Felix. “Ubuntu: An Underutilised Foundational Constitutional Principle of South African Environmental Law”. Journal of Law, Society and Development, 15 pages. https://doi.org/10.25159/2520-9515/13512.



Received 2023-04-11
Accepted 2023-07-11
Published 2023-08-15