Ubuntu Social Work

Ubuntu is Africa’s overarching philosophy. A philosophy contains a society’s deep thoughts and ways of looking at life. It shapes how people think about the family, community, society, environment and spirituality. It shapes how people think about reality, existence, reason, knowledge, religion, truth, race, values, mind, behaviour, justice and language. In the chain of knowledge, a philosophy sits above theories. Theories are derived from philosophy. A society usually has one philosophy. Basically, each continent has its one overarching philosophy.

Ubuntu has strengths but also shortcomings. However, most of the ‘shortcomings’ are a result of misconceptions about Ubuntu. In the sections below, misconceptions will be clarifies first, followed by weaknesses then strengths.

*Ubuntu with a capital letter refers to Ubuntu in the whole of Africa, the one with a small letter refers to ubuntu in South Africa.

Misconceptions about Ubuntu

  • There is a misconception that African philosophy has one name, Ubuntu. No it is known by several names, almost all the names have a common linguistic origin. The popular name in the literature is Ubuntu.
  • There is a misconception that the philosophy is new and it start recently. No. It started thousands of years ago.
  • There is a misconception that Ubuntu started in South Africa (country) or Southern Africa (region). No. It was popularised in South Africa, particularly the name ubuntu.
  • There is a misconception that Ubuntu is inferior to western or eastern ways, no, it is not.
  • There is a misconception that Ubuntu was discarded by Africans. No, it still shapes their life, knowledge and being.
  • There is a misconception that Ubuntu is only about individuals and families, no, it also about communities, countries, nations and is applicable at continental and global issues.
  • There is a misconception that it is about being respectful, harmonious, solidarity, compassion, subservient or helpful only. This are aspects of Ubuntu at the individual. No. It is equally about freedom, liberation, responsibility and possession.
  • There is a misconception that in Ubuntu, questioning is not allowed. You are not allowed to be critical or to oppose. This is not true. You can question, be critical, be radical and oppose in a respectful way.
  • It is not applicable outside Africa. This is a misconception. Ubuntu has influenced Kwanza (the Black American holiday started in the 1960s) and it continues to influence mentoring programs outside Africa. It also influences management, leadership and community work. The Ubuntu value of Sankofa, looking back to inform the present and future, is very much used by Black Americans who look back to Africa as their source of culture and personhood.
  • It is not even a philosophy, what does it not have philosophers like western philosophers? Ubuntu is a philosophy with several philosophers. Most of it exists as orature, unwritten philosophy but there is now a considerable amount of written philosophers on Ubuntu.
  • Ubuntu has no founders, how come? It does not need founders because by principle, Ubuntu is collective. Founders are found in individualistic societies.
  • Others think it is a weakness for Ubuntu to be more collective than individualistic and yet others say Ubuntu does not respect individuality. This is all not true. being collective is not a weakness but a strength. The individual has their space in African life, but their space derive from, and is seen through the family and community.
  • There is a misconception that it can not be used in research, teaching and practice. This is not true. It has been used, is being used and is useful. The truth is, African literature in general has been relegated to the periphery or discarded in favour of western literature.
  • There is a misconception that Ubuntu is anti-women, anti-disability and anti-children. Not true at all. When institutions for children, so called orphanages were introduced in Africa by western missionaries and social workers, it was against the Ubuntu principle of child growth, development and protection in the family and community. It has not been realised that Ubuntu was right all along. Children do not belong to institutions, its not in their best interest at all.
  • There is a misconception that Ubuntu means going back to Africa’s old life. Not at all. It means going to where we are comfortable in this age if we had not been colonised. Africa was never static, its culture and philosophy was dynamic.
  • Ubuntu resulted in Africa’s colonisation? This could be true but we need to go further to say that anti-colonisation and decolonisation result from Ubuntu. You can not be human without freedom, you can not be human when you have been dispossessed – these were the Ubuntu ideals that motivated anti-colonisers, freedom fighters and pan-Africanists.
  • If Ubuntu was useful, why is there still conflict in Africa? Why do we have dictators and corruption? Why is there gender-based or other forms of violence? But conflict, poor governance and violence exists even is countries that use western and eastern philosophies.
  • Why are families sometimes individualistic and collective? because of colonisation. This is more prevalent in urban communities that were more westernized.
  • Why are social vices like rape, even in the family by family members, so high in some African communities if we have Ubuntu? This is due to family breakdown. With Ubuntu, families are the utmost places of safety. Family breakdown has many causes, among them urbanization, westernization, migration, foreign religions like Christianity or Islam and other issues like death as a result of HIV and AIDS.
  • What is the best choice, going back to Ubuntu or to westernise more? Westernisation is colonial, it has been shown in many countries to result in more social challenges. The best choice is to indigenise, meaning using owr own philosophy to solve our own challenges?
  • What are the good examples of Ubuntu practice in Africa? When white people led by Christian missionaries and colonial administrators colonised Africa, they took away some children from homes and put them in orphanages or children’s homes despite advise from African elders, leaders and spiritual leaders that this was contrary to our philosophy, believes and practices. years later Africa is now dismantling the institutions because they have caused so much suffering – psychological harm, separation, loss of identity, loss of heritage etc. Today, our elders, leaders and spiritual leaders have been proven right, the white missionaries and colonists wrong.
  • Ubuntu is against Christianity and Islam? No, it is these foreign religions that are against African ways of being. They are against African beliefs, identities and heritage. They are against African histories, values and beliefs. Ubuntu contains stronger values about life that are expressed in ways Africans understand. Foreign religions are mythical, mysterious, oppressive, difficult to understand and believe and unquestionable. As Chimamanda Ngozi said “Some of the early Christian missionaries across the African continent were very keen on destroying African art, carved African deities which they told the Africans, were just magic. I cannot help but really wonder what could be more magical than the story of a man who dies and then magically rises again; a man who also manages to magically give his body as bread.”
  • There is a misconception that Ubuntu does not impact all of African life. It does. It impacts African art, beliefs, theories, relations, knowledge, ways of social work, literature, history etc.
  • Should you capitalise Ubuntu when writing? Should i write it in italics? When referring to the African philosophy, capitalise Ubuntu. Do not put it in italics. When referring to ubuntu in specific countries use a small letter u and put in italics. This distinguishes it at the two levels – national e.g. South Africa and continental Africa.

Shortcomings of Ubuntu

  • In urban areas, especially, and in African Diaspora communities, Ubuntu has been eroded to varying levels but exists.
  • There is not enough written literature on Ubuntu, most exist as orature. This has resulted in some people criticizing it as vague.
  • The application of Ubuntu in education, practice, fieldwork and research has not been adequately clarified and exemplified.
  • Available literature on Ubuntu is not easily accessible to schools, universities, students, practitioners, lecturers and researchers.
  • Not used that much by Africans in their professions (this is changing) but used in their daily lives. This is because of the colonial separation of education from real life experiences.
  • It is misused when people focus on ‘a good human’ aspects of Ubuntu such as being respectful and forgiving neglecting the more critical, structural and transformational issues. This happened with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. In the process, they did not allow for the return of land that was stolen from South Africans by white people.

Strengths of Ubuntu

  • It exists in all Black African communities.
  • It exists in abundance as orature.
  • It has gained international appeal.
  • It can decolonise and indigenous at the same time.
  • It is rich, from it sub-philosophies, theories, ethics, methods etc are derived.
  • It exists in African language and culture.
  • Ubuntu is an overarching philosophy, this means it is broad enough to be used in all disciplines, aspects of life at all levels of society.

Ubuntu Values

  • Relations (ukama) – valuing parents, blood relations and tribal family; social, cultural, spiritual, economic and political relations
  • Culture (umuco/isiko) – valuing the way we do things (food, language, dress, knowledge, ethics, beliefs etc)
  • Indigeneity (wazawa) – valuing being black Africans and being people of the African continent
  • Wholism/holistic (mzima/phelele) – valuing connection between people, their past and future, environment and spirituality
  • Justice and Freedom (uhuru) – valuing being free and independent from colonisation and injustice; valuing just laws and practices in relation to land, the environment, relations, economics, politics etc
  • Responsibility (mutoro) – valuing that we have a responsibility towards each other and future generations and a responsibility to our environment and responsibility to maintain relations (ukama)
  • Community/collectivity (ujamaa) – valuing working together
  • Respect (girmamawa) – valuing humanity, treating a person as a person, elders, parents, land, ancestors and spirituality

Ubuntu Ethics

  • Girmamawa – the ethic of respect
  • Itorero – good members of society, and a strong sense of cultural values and leadership skills. The ethic is to respect our cultures
  • Kagisano – good neighbourliness. The ethic is to promote harmony
  • Kuumba – creativity. The ethic is not to imitate
  • Musha – permanent home in ancestral lands. The ethic is to protect and maintain permanent homes
  • Sankofa – look back to inform the future.
  • Shosholoza – resilience. The ethic is remaining strong despite adversity
  • Simunye – strengths in numbers, we are one. The ethic is promote cooperation and collectivism
  • Ubunyarwanda – nationhood. There are many ethics including promotIng peace
  • Uhuru – liberty/independence/freedom. The ethic is liberate and protect African liberation
  • Ujamaa – familyhood or communityhood. The ethic is promote cooperation and collectivism
  • Ujima – collective responsibility. The ethic is to look after one another
  • Ukama, Harambee – familyhood, valuing blood relations.
  • Umachobane – sustainability. The ethic is to do programs that are sustainable.
  • Umhuri – familyhood, valuing blood relations. The ethic is protect families and marriages
  • Umoja – unity, peace and harmony. The ethic is to promote oneness.
  • Umuganda – service to others. The ethic is help others in need or reciprocity
  • Unyanzvi – professionalism. The ethic is to act professionally
  • Upenyu – valuing life. The ethic is do not harm or kill          
  • Urithi, Nhaka – inheritance. The ethic is to protect inheritance
  • Uroho – spiritual connectedness. The ethic is to be holistic
  • Ururami, Ubulungiswa, Ubutabera – justice. The ethic is for people to be just
  • Ushavi – workmanship, enterprising . The ethic is hardworking
  • Utungamiri – leadership. The ethic is people centered leadership

Ubuntu Maxims

  • Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (South Africa) – collectivity, communalism
  • Ndiri nekuti tiri (Zimbabwe) – collectivity, communalism
  • Onye aghana nwanne ya (Nigeria) – don’t leave anyone behind
  • Mambo vanhu (Zimbabwe; Samkange, 1980) – people-centred leadership
  • Chikuru upenyu (Zimbabwe; Samkange, 1980) – valuing life
  • Motho ke motho ka batho (Botswana) – collectivity
  • Mwana ndewemunhu wese (Child belongs to the village) – collectivity
  • Umoja ni nguvu (Swahili) – collectivity
  • Ndi nii tondu wanyu (Kenya) – collectivity
  • An dhano nikeche wantie (Kenya) – collectivity
  • Musha mukadzi (Zimbabwe) – valuing women
  • Miti upenyu (Zimbabwe) – valuing the environment
  • Mhosva hairovi (Zimbabwe) – valuing justice
  • Munhu munhu nekuda kweVanhu (Zimbabwe; Samkange, 1980) – we are human through others
  • Ibu anyi danda (Nigeria) – carrying a load together means no one is feeling the burden

Do you have a maxim to share? Please use the short form below. Thank you.

Ubuntu Resources

Use the link below to view or download presentations on Ubuntu social work by Dr Jacob Rugare Mugumbate