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the story of ubuntu army

Ubuntu is an Nguni Bantu term meaning humanity. It is often translated as I am because we are, or in a more philosophical sense, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.



Ubuntu Army is a collection of ordinary, everyday, garden variety people from around the world, who offer their skills, resources and time to assist the most vulnerable members of our society, and help them to reclaim their dignity and independence.​​ In the process, division is destroyed, and the foundations for true democracy are laid.

As Covid approached in early 2020, I decided to escape the lockdowns of metropolitan Durban, South Africa , and head to the mountains, with my sons, for a few months. I prepared for the trip, and on the morning of our planned departure, I woke up with an incredibly strong sense that I needed to stay in Durban. I needed to fight. It felt like war approaching. I told my sons that we were going to stay in Durban and two hours later, I had joined an online group of international designers working to develop an opensource, low-cost, ventilator for the third world. Later that afternoon, I was asked by my mother to help a small church deliver food to an orphanage in an incredibly poor informal settlement on the outskirts of Durban. As it turned out all the regular drivers were slightly older members of their church, and were concerned by this mysterious Covid that had reached our shores. They were advised to stay at home. I stepped in and began delivering the food surplus from local supermarkets to the orphanage. Three years later, Ubuntu Army delivers food and supplies to many orphanages, especially during times of crisis.


As the lockdowns intensified, I realised that hunger was becoming a massive problem for the members of the foreign national, hand-to-mouth informal sector that operated around Durban. All their businesses were forcibly closed under very strict national lockdown laws. I created a Facebook group, and within a few weeks, with the financial help of members of our growing social media network, and with a few fabricated travel permits, our newly named Ubuntu Army took to the streets. We established a command centre in St. Peter’s, a Catholic church in Point Road, a notorious road in the underbelly of the port and harbour complex of Durban. St Peter’s served as an Ubuntu Army food storage warehouse and distribution centre for the next seven months as we supported around 30000 foreign nationals from around Africa, with food, toiletries, and legal advice. These families had been forced to flee their own countries due to genocide, famine, political instability, and poverty, and had become legitimate and documented members of our community. And yet they were not recognised or supported by the South African government when the lockdowns were enforced. They were also not allowed to leave the country due to lockdown laws, and once more, became refugees in their new country. During these seven months we were harassed by the police and politicians for successfully supporting foreign nationals, due to the institutionalised incompetence and xenophobia that pervades South African bureaucracy. We never took a step backwards and successfully shepherded over 4000 families to safety. 


It was in Point Road, working with Africans from Rwanda, Cameroon, Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria and Congo, that Ubuntu Army’s reputation as a compassionate, no-nonsense, hands-on organisation was established. From there, Ubuntu Army exploded. By posting regular updates on our Facebook page, our membership grew, so too did our reach and capacity. We were an army of ordinary people, spread around South Africa, doing the work that was previously the reserve of non-profit corporations. We offered direct, in person support to the vulnerable, and we could reach most communities in the country through our expanding membership. We also found that offshore members began supporting their own vulnerable communities, in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Poland, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom. The spirit of Ubuntu was spreading. I knew that we had uncovered a gem. 


As we grew, we established two incredibly important initiatives that remain the backbone of our vision for the future. First, we established the Ubuntu Link Facebook page, which now represents 7000 vulnerable families from around South Africa. Ordinary people from around the world were invited to connect with the family representative on the page, and from there to offer their support to the family in need. Tens of thousands were fed remotely by this page. And. We found that real connection between those involved in the transaction is forged during the sharing of food vouchers, that the support does not move in one direction only, but is reciprocal, and permeates the emotional and spiritual realms, and that many Ubuntu Links have developed into micro-communities online, and in person, that remain strong and intact. Compassion builds community. And real friendship.


Second, we planted over 200 micro-farms in downtown slums, informal settlements, and men’s hostels. We chose impossible locations to test out farms, and our logic. Each farm planted could grow approximately 100 curated plants, which was enough to support a family. The farms were designed to provide food in a hostile, cramped and resource poor environment, during a time of lockdown-induced food scarcity. The Ubuntu Farms were a success, a learning curve, and have now become a refined and sophisticated tool of hope. The Ubuntu Farm project are now one of the projects housed in our Poverty Laboratory, a collaborative effort to research, test and deliver mechanisms, tools, projects and perspectives that fight poverty.


The beauty of Ubuntu Army is that the work is done by large numbers of ordinary people, and I truly believe, that this creates the most powerful antidote to poverty and suffering possible. Connection. After three years on the frontline of poverty in South Africa, the greatest weapon at our disposal in fighting poverty is connection. Poverty is not a lack of resource, it is a lack of connection, a lack of community. With community we can solve the issues of food, water and shelter, but without it, we only have anonymous charity and politics left, and neither solve anything. Towards the end of 2022, I was sent an article, published in the New York Times, that reported that a group of social scientists from around the world, had conducted a yearlong study into poverty. Their conclusion was that the greatest weapon needed to successfully fight poverty, was connection. Not donation or growth in the non-profit sector, but good old-fashioned connection. Connection builds community, and community destroys poverty, as the poverty will eventually be overwhelmed by the sheer number of connections that are created. Simple really.


Ubuntu Army has been walking this path since March 2020, and we are experienced in matters of connection. It is everything. It has repeatedly proven to be the difference between life and death. It has been, and remains, our job to facilitate connection, to encourage, lead, educate and convert those not yet involved in practicing Ubuntu, to encourage those who have not yet created an Ubuntu Link, to step forward and to serve. A difficult, but essential task, a task that I believe we are beginning to master. Creating an Ubuntu Link with a vulnerable family is the single most important act of kindness, of compassion, we can take in our lifetimes to address the poverty, inequality and division that haunt our society. #ubuntulink needs to become a universal symbol of hope, a universal mechanism of change. That is one of our jobs. Without connection, without widespread Ubuntu, I fear we are doomed. 


For three years, members of Ubuntu Army represented vulnerable communities, around South Africa, and abroad, under incredibly challenging circumstances. In my home province of Kwa Zulu Natal, we have navigated the crippling financial and social effects of Covid and the starvation that resulted, endured the violence, destruction and death of widespread rioting and looting that gripped the province in July 2021, and survived the utter devastation of the April 2022 floods that destroyed the little resource that many tens of thousands had left after two years of struggle. It has been a lot, but Ubuntu Army got the job done. We have once more shepherded the victims of the riots and floods to safety, and in so doing cemented our reputation as a compassionate, no-nonsense, hands-on organisation. When we drive along Point Road in Durban’s CBD, refugees’ wave and punch the air, shouting Ubuntu. The same happens in the green valleys of Inanda, and further to the west in Kwangolosi. Something has changed. During our time with the humble people in these areas, we not only provided food, blankets, stoves, and homes, we unlocked hope. We delivered humanity. In those precious exchanges, the forgotten and ignored felt seen. Compassion builds community, and community destroys political division and poverty. Important tenants for a deeply divided and unequal society like South Africa.


And that is the story of how Ubuntu Army came to be. it grew from very simple beginnings. It grew, I believe, because it resonated with a few universal truths in the hearts and minds of the ordinary, everyday people from around the world. Ordinary people witnessed the work of an ordinary man and his truck and felt empowered to act on their own. If the simple acts of a single man can sow the seeds of compassion on a national, and international, level, then imagine what is possible if more people accept their responsibility to serve. If more people step forward and connect with one or two or three vulnerable families. This is real change, and I believe the politicians and non-profits will fall inline as the compassion spreads. Bold words, but based on a great deal of experience, evidence, global research, undiluted optimism, and success. 


It has been the greatest privilege of my life to serve the vulnerable and humble people of South Africa, and although I am exhausted, I have been left with hope for my country, and to be honest, with hope for humanity. All we need to do is to step out of our comfort zones and to meet the people on the other side of our road, on the other side of our town, on the other side of our social, economic, and political divide. On the other side of our fears. With connection, we can destroy division, and conquer the issues that we face as individuals, as cities, as countries. We have proved this repeatedly over the past three years. We supported hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people mainly in South Africa, but also around the world, through kind collective action, through the compassion of the ordinary, everyday, garden variety people. Ubuntu.  

Clint McLean, Durban 2023

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