The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You know Ubuntu as an operating system. Mandela knew it as his life’s mission.

President Obama speaks to Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

It was easy to miss in President Obama's 19-minute eulogy to Nelson Mandela today, but halfway through the speech, the president mentioned a word many of us recognize only as a piece of software.

Ubuntu is among the world's most popular versions of Linux, the open-source operating system. It claimed some 200 million users worldwide at last count in 2011. To many, Ubuntu means a trustworthy alternative to the dominance of Apple and Microsoft's own operating systems — a way to escape from corporate architectures.

Yet the system's name didn't spring from nowhere. It's inspired by a notion that's even less tangible than a bunch of ones and zeroes; it describes, Obama said, the extent of Mandela's compassion.

There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. ... He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.

A spirit of generosity for the benefit of all amid a recognition of human universality. He may not have invented it, but Mandela turned that Xhosa principle into public policy, a move that has since become the subject of countless studies in conflict resolution and leadership. As Timothy Murithi, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, writes, ubuntu underpins a formal, five-stage approach to peacemaking that isn't unique to South Africa but is common across the continent.

It's no coincidence that the head of the Ubuntu project, Mark Shuttleworth, also happens to be South African.

Here's how Mandela once described ubuntu, in his own words:

What animates Shuttleworth's software mission is effectively summed up in the project's own name; in fact, a great deal of the open-source movement is motivated by what Mandela describes as the enabling of the community. But perhaps it's not a huge leap, either, to think of ubuntu as a type of operating system for people.