Ubuntu Theories


Whose fault is it if no one knows about the philosophy of your grandfather and mine? Is it not your fault and mine? We are the intellectuals of (Africa). It is our business to distill this philosophy and set it out for the world to see (Samkange, 1980).

Samkange (1980) argued that Africans need to learn, write and practice ubuntu. Just as westerners use philosophies of their ancestors, Africans should find pride in the philosophies of their ancestors like ubuntu. There are several theories, frameworks and models built on ubuntu. For a start, this article might be useful. More articles are available in the Special Issue published by the African Journal of Social Work in 2020.

Ubuntu is a collection of values, practices and theories that Black people of Africa view as making people and their communities authentic. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing – an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world. The term ubuntu is expressed differently is several African communities and languages but all referring to the same thing. In Angola, it is known as gimuntu, Botswana (muthu), Burkina Faso (maaya), Burundi (ubuntu), Cameroon (bato), Congo (bantu), Congo Democratic Republic (bomoto/bantu), Cote d’Ivoire (maaya), Equatorial Guinea (maaya), Guinea (maaya), Gambia (maaya), Ghana (biako ye), Kenya (utu/munto/mondo), Liberia (maaya), Malawi (umunthu), Mali (maaya/hadama de ya), Mozambique (vumuntu), Namibia (omundu), Nigeria (mutunchi/iwa/agwa), Rwanda (bantu), Sierra Leonne (maaya), South Africa (ubuntu/botho), Tanzania (utu/obuntu/bumuntu), Uganda (obuntu), Zambia (umunthu/ubuntu) and Zimbabwe (hunhu/unhu/botho/ubuntu). It is also found in other Bantu countries not mentioned here. Different-frameworks-of-ubuntu-for-social-workers


In education, ubuntu has been used to guide and promote African ideas, and to decolonise it from western educational philosophies. Ubuntu education uses the family, community and environment as sources of knowledge but also as teaching and learning media. The essence of education is family, community, societal and environmental well being. Interaction, liberation, participation, recognition, respect and inclusion are important aspects of ubuntu education. Methods of teaching and learning include groups and community approaches. In short, ubuntu shapes the objectives, content, methodology and outcomes of education.


This refers to Afrocentric ways of providing a social safety net to vulnerable members of society. Common elements include collectivity, ukama (ralationality), ujamaa (collaboration) and looking at people holistically. These approaches are indigenous, and help to decolonise. Ubuntu is against materialism and individualism. The social interventions done by social workers, welfare workers and development workers should strengthen, not weaken families, communities, society, the environment and peoples’s spirituality. These are the 5 pillars of ubuntu intervention: family, community. society, environment and spirituality. 


Ubuntu can guide research objectives, ethics and methodology, and decolonise research agenda and methodology. The objectives of ubuntu research are to empower families, communities and society at large. In doing ubuntu research, the position of the researcher is important because it helps form relationships with the participants. The agenda of the research belongs to the community, and true participation is highly valued. Ujamaa, which means pulling together and is about collaboration, is highly valued. Oral literature (orature is valued because most of African thought is not written. Relational and collective approaches too research are valued. Human beings are seen as part of nature, not as separate from it. Data collection methods include dare, an approach that involves participants sitting together, often in a circle, and sharing respectively, in turn. Story telling nyaya and dialogue hurukuro are valued. In true ubuntu research, written consent is of no significance, it is not valued because relationships are more important than contracts. Research is incomplete without asking the participants to verify what you are going to publish, how you will gain from the research and how the community will gain. The research itself, together with feedback, must be provided in appropriate language and formats Ubuntu values good communication, that is, how you say what you have to say. How deep is what you say? Other participants and leaders, require opportunities to talk at length kuseva, orating using proverbs, idioms, folklores, maxims (short statements) and even songs. Ubuntu research values humane approaches and discourages cheating, deceit, harm and disrespect. 


‘…actions are right roughly insofar as they are a matter of living harmoniously with others or honouring communal relationships’ (Metz and Gaie, 2010, p. 273). ‘One’s ultimate goal should be to become a full person, a real self or a genuine human being, Metz and Gaie, 2010, p. 275. Relationships (ukama) are important. Among the Shona people for example, when a person dies, his or her property is shared amongst relatives and there are culturally approved ways of doing this. The practice is called kugova. Life is valued. As Samkange said, “If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life” (Samkange, 1980, p. 7)


In the book Hunhuism or Ubuntuism, Samkange (1980) said ‘Is there a philosophy or ideology indegenous to (a) country that can serve its people just as well, if not better than, foreign ideologies?”. Samkange’s maxim for leadership is “The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him” (Samkange, 1980, p. 7). Here, a king refers to a leader of a home, family, school, work place, village, community, organisation, country, nation or international. It also refers to a professionals like a social workers because of the statutory authority they have when working with families, community or clients.


Samkange’stheory has three maxims (short statements) as shown in the table. For a history of Samkange, see this document.

SummaryMaxims (ubuntu statements)
Human relations“To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 6   “The attention one human being gives to another: the kindness, courtesy, consideration and friendliness in the relationship between people; a code of behaviour, an attitude to other people and to life, is embodied in hunhu or Ubuntu” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 6).
Sanctity of life“If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 7)   This is an ethical principle.
People-centred status“The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him” (Samkange and Samkange, 1980, p. 7)   Here, a king refers to a leader of a home, family, school, work place, village, community, organisation, country, nation or international. It also means a professional like a social worker because of the power they have when working with service users, community or clients.

Other maxims

Motho ke motho ka batho. This is Sotho or Tswana language meaning a person is a person through other people. In Zulu it is Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. In Shona it is Munhu munhu nevanhu. The maxim I am because we are, means Ndiri nekuti tiri (Shona).


Ubuntu spirituality is communalised, and values the family and environment. 


Ubuntu justice emphasises these elements:

  1. Deterrence which can be done socially, physically, economically or spiritually
  2. Returning and Replacement – meaning bringing back what has been stolen, replacing it or compensating. In Shona language this is called kudzora and kuripa
  3. Apology, Forgiveness and Reconciliation (restoration of ukama or relations) after meeting the above
  4. Warnings and Punishments (retribution) from community, leaders and elders if the above have not been achieved or ignored
  5. Warnings and Punishments from spiritual beings if the above have not been met. In Shona culture, these are called jambwa and ngozi

Families, and communities are involved in the processes of justice.