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"Ubuntu prepared me for social work in ways I never thought I'd understand"

Mthoko Ngobese, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of West London, explains the significance of Ubuntu maxims to social work practice ahead of her seminar on the topic at the Social Work Innovations conference.

14/11/23

"Ubuntu prepared me for social work in ways I never thought I'd understand"

When I first arrived in the UK in the early 2000s I was often met with blank stares whenever I spoke about the moral philosophy I was raised by – Ubuntu. Hardly a person in the room understood what I was talking about. Over the past few years, it appears the world has woken up to the concept of Ubuntu.

Internationally social work has come to embrace Ubuntu. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the themes of the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development 2020 to 2030 is Ubuntu. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) also picked Ubuntu as their annual theme for 2020 as did the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW).

I write this article as a black South African woman in social work who was raised by the philosophy of Ubuntu. I remember Ubuntu lessons in primary school were like physical education (PE) lessons for some – thought of as easy lessons to take you away from serious lessons. At the time I did not understand the significance of what we were learning. Being socialised on Ubuntu prepared me for my career in social work in ways I never thought I would understand.

Ubuntu is an African moral code that articulates core African values. Whilst Ubuntu is generally believed to have originated from South Africa, it is a moral code that is known by different names in different parts of the African continent and has been practiced for centuries. Bishop Tutu (2012) defined it as an ancient African spiritual belief and way of life that highlights the strength in the community of humanity. It is characterised by communal relationality, communal ideals and human excellence forms part of the knowledge and wisdom of how African communities and families raise children (Mugumbate and Chereni, 2019). A maxim is a general statement that articulates a principle.

Using three Ubuntu maxims I will highlight the importance of Ubuntu in social work.
1. It takes a village to raise a child.
2. Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu – I am because we are
3. The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him.

1. It takes a village to raise a child
Nelson Mandela once stated, “the true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children”. This is a call to Ubuntu, in how children can feel safe in society and their needs met by the community within which they exist. This is about a collective responsibility held by the community to also ensure the collective socialisation of children in the community and impart core values held by the society. This ideal is demonstrated in approaches that involve social workers working with the child’s extended family to make plans to keep a child safe in the family network.

This could include the family coming together to address concerns that may exist about the child and their welfare. An example of this would be a Family Group Conferencing (FGC) model that looks at the wider family network. The FGC is about the family and members of the community coming together in partnership with social workers and other processionals to play a pivotal role in planning and providing services necessary for the well-being of children. This maxim is further cemented by the Children Act (1989) acknowledging the role of the family in keeping children safe and the Working Together to Safeguard Children (2022) which states that keeping children safe is a collective responsibility.

2. Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu – I am because we are
Translated directly it means ‘I am because you are, and you are because I am’. This maxim acknowledges the partnerships and communal nature of human beings. It suggests that one cannot remain unmoved by the pain experienced by other people in society. This maxim also speaks to how we respond with empathy to international issues that may seem far from us. When we look at injustices, war and strife happening in other countries of the world, as social workers we are aware that these matters require human rights responses to safeguard children and families. Social workers could see this happen by dealing with asylum seekers and young children who have escaped their home countries to seek refuge in the UK. Ubuntu is about coming together and getting involved in addressing presenting problems for the overall wellbeing of the whole community.

In social work this could be linked to the systems theory, it focuses on relationships between people and their environments and how people interact within these complex relationships with each other and their environments. In understanding these interactions social workers are able to holistically address presenting concerns in a manner that ensure positive changes.

3. The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it to the will of the people under him.
In recent years social work has placed a lot of emphasis on leadership, social work recognises that leadership can be demonstrated at all levels of the social worker’s career. The king here refers to a leader of a home, family, school, workplace, 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, the community or their clients. I can understand why some social workers would feel uncomfortable with being seen as ‘king’. Leadership can be demonstrated in organisations within which social workers work, I argue, holding a case is an act of leadership.

Acknowledgment of real and perceived powers held by social workers will help social workers to act in a responsible manner when working with families and other stakeholders. It helps us to respectfully collaborate in decision making, build relationships and make plans to address matters that are of concern to families. The Ubuntu leadership approach focusses on teamwork, attention to relationships, mutual respect and empathy between leader and followers, and collaborative decision-making. This is a true embodiment of social work values and therefore this is one of the best leadership approaches used in social work. This type of leadership does not suggest there are no power differences but suggests the one holding power is aware of the responsibilities that come with that power and seeks to use it for the advancement of the other person.

One of the reasons why Ubuntu continues to gain momentum in the world of social work is its simplicity, congruence with social work values and applicability to different cultures internationally. Ubuntu continues to be recognised in social work as one of the ways wisdom and knowledge from Africa is incorporated and applied. This article has highlighted the relevance of these African maxims and their applicability to global social work practice and knowledge creation.

Mthoko Ngobese is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at University of West London (UWL).

To register for a free ticket to the Social Work Innovations conference and attend seminars on this and other topics, visit www.compassjobsfair.com/events/london/book-tickets

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