African Theories of Social Work

Theories are like these century-old roots, they help the trunk and everything else. If you replace these roots, the rest will not stand. In citrus farming, an orange tree branch can be grafted onto a lemon tree and thrives only in certain conditions, if those conditions disappear, the tree will not give oranges but lemons.


  • It is a myth that theories should be developed in the west or that useful theories are those developed in the west. African people from several centuries ago have been developing theories, and we continue to do that now. We have old but very useful theories that our ancestors developed. Most might not be written, they are orature (oral literature, that is, our songs, proverbs and sayings are theoretical), but they are the old roots of our society. Most western theories are not useful, some are even dangerous to African society as you will see in the color coded boxes below.
  • It is a myth that only professors can develop theories, anyone can develop a theory. A theory becomes important based on how much it is used. African theories are used less, therefore, they do not become important. Only when Africans use their theories can they become prominent. We have seen this with Ubuntu.
  • It is a myth that when you write your essay, thesis, review, blog, presentation etc you need to rely on western theories. Your strongest writing is that which uses appropriate, local and indigenous theories.


When professional social work was introduced to Africa, as was the case in most developing countries of the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific and South America, the foreigners who brought social work assumed that social work was new to the country, and therefore attempted to sideline, ignore and replace existing systems with theirs. In replacing existing systems, the foreign people depended on theories from outside. With time, local theories found their way into African social work.


The green group of theories consists of theories that we consider safe and useful. Most of them were developed from within. The light green group are new and emerging theories developed in Africa, they are useful. The amber group consists of theories developed outside but that may be useful. The red group, as the color suggests, are harmful or dangerous theories, or those with limited relevance.

Safe and appropriate theories and approaches

  • African Family Theory
  • Individual-in-Family approach (IIF)
  • Ubuntu Theory
  • Indigenisation Theory
  • Decolonization Theory
  • Independence Theory
  • Pan-Africanism
  • African Asset-based family and community development
  • Ujamaa approach
  • Paulo Freire Theory of Learning/Pedagogy
  • Tanoa Ni Veiqaravi (Serving Bowl of Serving Others) (Pacific Theory)

Developing, new, innovative or emerging theories

  • Friendship Bench (Dr Dixon Chibanda, Psychiatrist, Zimbabwe)
  • Theory of Dead Aid (Dambisa Moyo, Economist, Zambia)
  • Diaspora Theory
  • One-Africa Theory

Theories and approaches from outside that may be useful

  • Systems Theory (the west’s Ubuntu-like ideas, should not replace Ubuntu or be seen as equal)

Theories and approaches that have very limited relevance, are harmful or dangerous.

  • Colonial Theory
  • Neo-Colonial Theory
  • Assimilation Theory
  • Psychoanalysis (Freud)
  • Body Mapping Approach
  • Modernisation Theory
  • Darwinism