Deconstructing Ubuntu: UP academic launches book on the daily successes of Southern Africans despite challenges

Posted on August 27, 2019

Ubuntu, potentially one of the most popular ideas in Southern Africa, is what sets us apart from the rest of the world, and has also gotten us through some major challenges as a people. 

A book penned by University of Pretoria (UP) academic, Professor Liesel Ebersöhn, Director of  the Centre for the Study of Resilience in the Faculty of Education, aims to deconstruct the idea of Ubuntu and ultimately shed some light on why we behave the way we do and why we are able to do better than expected – despite challenges.  Titled Flocking Together: An indigenous psychology theory of resilience in Southern Africa, the book is the latest in her work that spans decades in the field of educational psychology.

Prof Ebersöhn said the theory proposed in the book allows us to understand how, in everyday settings, the people of Southern Africa tackle problems that they are faced with; that they have developed sophisticated and robust social structures to support each other, despite the absence of formal structures and services of support.

She said the idea behind the book was to explore a resilience concept unique to Southern Africans, the idea of flocking – quite different to that of fight, flight, freeze, faint and swarm elsewhere in the world.

She explained:  “Flocking shows behaviours that are implied by Ubuntu and refers to people sharing available social resources to withstand everyday challenges such as hunger, unemployment, illness by means of simple acts of connectedness:  visiting a friend who is ill to talk, listen and help with household chores; taking someone without transport to a clinic for a check-up and medication, keeping our ears on the ground to spot people who need help.”

In the absence of flocking acts fewer Southern Africans would be able to access health and welfare services, as well as job opportunities. Without flocking fewer South Africans would have daily meals and clothes to wear, be able to receive schooling and provide money for their families.  

The book was launched recently at the Groenkloof Campus, home to UP’s Faculty of Education, with Professor Chika Sehoole, the Dean presiding.

Prof Ebersöhn said she wanted to share in the book how Afrocentric teachings help people in Southern Africa confront everyday challenges. She also wanted to show how evidence-based insights from Africa can benefit global discourses in science.

“Like others, I often wonder whose knowledge matters? As a researcher this makes me think about which questions I want to ask when generating knowledge. As a university teacher it makes me consider which theories to select to train educational psychology students.”

Flocking Together was written using data that was collected over 20 years. Participants were encouraged to use a variety of mediums such as drawing, talking and photographs to share their experiences.

“Over a 20-year time frame, in multiple studies in urban and rural Southern African communities, young people and elders shared knowledge of age-old strategies which they still draw on today to manage challenges in order to live meaningful lives. We asked people to talk, and draw, and map and take photographs and use clay and sand to sculpt images of how they are able to maintain well-being: despite drought and isolation, or the harsh shocks in daily life given HIV/AIDS, or limited employment opportunities, or sparsely resourced schools, or limited transport to schools and jobs and clinics,” she explained. 

Prof Ebersöhn said she hoped  her research team’s findings on how Southern Africans build systems to help them withstand the brunt of social ills can serve as an alternative framework for policy-makers and development agencies.

She said: “We can expect that policy (education, welfare, health) which grafts onto existing and familiar social structures of care and support will be ‘owned’ by Southern African communities – with better chances to sustain,” – as opposed to using unfamiliar lenses for interventions with a short shelf life and low returns on development investment.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said work such as that produced by Prof Ebersöhn “is important in the ownership of knowledge creation”.

“Knowledge systems in Africa have always relied on word of mouth. And now, our role as academics is to capture this knowledge through our work and present it to the world. Prof Ebersöhn’s work is important because it helps us achieve this in a spectacular fashion.”  


Flocking Together: An indigenous psychology theory of resilience in Southern Africa is now available for purchase here.

- Author Masego Panyane
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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