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Can a psychology of ubuntu heal our broken society?

The urgency of activism, although well-intentioned, can hide the ordinary, subtle, even banal nature of how societies become sick. The 16 days of activism, now quickly forgotten, reflected our uneasiness at how things are and had a desire to want to put things right. But change is a process, not an event.

Our response to violence must therefore acknowledge the insidiousness of how poverty, attitudes towards gender, mental health, our past, and the changing nature of families all intersect in a complex matrix that cannot be undone with overnight grand plans. We’re frustrated, but maybe we need to become inspired.

Women, children and sexual minorities are vulnerable to violent hate crimes. I work in public hospitals and we often assess and help these socially vulnerable groups who are — at the core — the victims of structural inequality left behind from apartheid. Those laws promoted homophobia and patriarchy.

Many traumatised, depressed and anxious people who become labelled as mentally unwell all endure stigma borne from a shared legacy of legislated discrimination. These challenges are rooted in our historical social pathologies. Fortunately, our democracy has created progressive laws and policies. But that’s not enough.

Despite research showing that state mental-health services tend to be under-funded, under-staffed, poorly conceptualised, and under-prioritised, along with some NGOs we bear the burden, perhaps the privilege, of being the last resort of hope for traumatised people who have nowhere to turn.

Fortunately, practicing psychology intersects with promoting human rights. The simple tenet underpinning our Constitution is, plainly put, about the right to be happy. The elusive pursuit of happiness is at the heart of mental-health promotion. As clinicians we’re satisfied with seeing our patients get relief from the symptoms that brought them into our offices, but we also hope for a true change in the social conditions that gave rise to them being vulnerable in the first place.

Our current ways of operating are too individualistic. Stuck in consulting rooms, organising a few outreach projects here and there, we are trapped in a mode of practice that is unnecessary, because communities are forgetting how to promote their own wellbeing.

For example, many psychiatry beds in hospitals are taken by people whose symptoms were triggered by high alcohol or drug abuse. Substance abuse leads to violence. But, reactive approaches shadow proactive ones, as one-on-one consultations fill our diaries. People may never become patients had there been effective psychosocial support in place. Similarly, the abnormally high suicide rate among LGBTI youth can be reduced if we focused on making young people comfortable with the varieties of sexualities that we are genetically predisposed towards. Instead, our reactive efforts wait for failed suicide attempts and we later try to treat the symptoms of a dysfunctional culture, ie alienation, rejection, aggression, ignorance.

Our discourse needs changing: Mental health is everybody’s business. It is not the domain of specialists.

Healthy communities should thus be able to help individual members before they even get to the point of needing specialist intervention like a psychiatrist or psychologist. This is where we fail ourselves. Are we doing enough to be everyday activists who create enabling, integrated social systems?

We really must deepen ubuntu, that spontaneous warmth we express for and through each other; build social capital; draw on our traditional and ancient healing wisdoms; know our neighbours well-enough to ask for help; not turn a blind eye or ear to abuse when we know it’s happening; not allow chronic alcoholism and drug abuse to be tolerated; affirm gay and lesbian identities as legitimate and okay; challenge gender norms; keep in contact with friends and family so our increasingly suburban lifestyle doesn’t isolate us; don’t get sucked into the narratives of how tough life is, how bad the world is, and how futile the pursuit of joy can be. We need to change the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we share with each other; we need to collect the wisdom of our foremothers who rose above adversity and made life happen, often happily and without complaint; and we need to nurture our souls, our common humanity, and our sense of love and kindness towards our fellow humans.

We need a psychology of the everyday, a psychology of being human within vibrant, exciting communities, whose building blocks are families that stay together, pray together, and play together. No amount of pills, or therapy, or hand-outs, or artificial support can replace the natural flow of being a person through other people.

Do you think a psychology and philosophy of ubuntu can help us get going?

An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Times, January 27 2014.


  • Suntosh Pillay works as a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in Durban. He is a PhD researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has written extensively on a range of topics in various media. He is grappling with social dilemmas and paradoxes that we are faced with every day & hopes to trigger debate, controversy, reflection and connection via his writings. He is past chair of the Board of Directors of the Mandela Rhodes Community and is part of various national committees of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA). Suntosh Pillay on ResearchGate To chat, network, or collaborate, email [email protected] Twitter: @suntoshpillay


  1. Zimbini Ogle Zimbini Ogle 28 January 2014

    Thank you for the article Suntosh.
    Mental health is not only the responsibility of clinicians, department of health; it is everyone’s business. It remains a concern that mental health issues remain a low priority in many countries. Even though this is the case, there is so much we can do to address some of the mental health problems faced by many individuals. We know through research that approximately 75% of mental disorders in adulthood have their onset in early life/formative stages.
    1.We need the fathers and mothers to commit to being parents, to commit to love and be emotionally available to their children, to teach them coping skills and help them internalize these skills. When you have committed parents, you have individuals who can recognize signs and symptoms of mental health problems and support these children.
    2.Children spend most of their time in schools, therefore it is important that learner support agents are taught about mental health.
    3. The psychiatric hospitals have a responsibility to transfer skills to community in order to strengthen the available resources in communities. We need to invest in primary health. My hospital is focusing on primary level aggressively
    4.Our training needs to match the needs of our society. The conversation on making our training needs to continue. Reflections done by community service psychologists highlight the gaps between the training and the actual work they are expected to do or the service they are expected to…

  2. suntosh suntosh 28 January 2014

    Thanks Zimbini for your reflections.

    I agree 100%. Way more needs to happen at the primary health level and family/school level.

    Our training is still too Western and individualised. We speak the rhetoric of a critical-community psychology but we practice one-one psychotherapy as if it’s sustainable for public health. I wonder how we can get the balance right?

  3. Yaj Yaj 28 January 2014

    @ Suntosh , your sentiments are in the right place but your ideas are way too wishy-washy.
    The major cause of the breakdown of our social fabric and socioeconomic problems including mental health problems is our fundamentally flawed and iniquitous debt-based monetary system of compound interest and fractional reserve banking.It is the root cause of wealth concentration, rising inequality and poverty.

    Please study this and understand how this system works and how it causes so much mental and emotional anguish and learn how it can be fundamentally changed to achieve much better societal outcomes.
    some useful websites are

  4. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 28 January 2014

    Ubuntu is simply a word. Every culture from every corner of the world has had the exact same basis. If they had not had a collective consciousness, they would have died. We may have a word for it but our (relatively) easy existence in history means that the practice of it has been somewhat less than other groups who had far more dangerous environments. The more people, the lower the need for keeping every member alive – it is the basic law of the jungle.

    What we really need is to stop people being so self focused. Make it the norm for youngsters at school to volunteer. Make it the norm for families to take on physically getting involved in solutions. Make throwing money at something a secondary reaction. The lady in the BMW who gives at the robot is greatly appreciated but she does NOTHING towards sustainable change. The man who writes a cheque to a shelter is wonderful but, other than soothing his own conscience, he learns nothing from the exercise.

    Maybe if we can get our fellow countrymen to take their heads out of their own …. well … then we would get a better class of followers who would demand a better standard of leadership. That would automatically take us back to our roots of community

  5. Sydney Sydney 29 January 2014

    Thank you for an article that looks to solutions other than politics to move our country forward. It is my contention that the last 100 years(or even more) has produced a scarred society. On both sides of the divide by the way. The psychological damage is so huge we cannot just wish it away, and you see it in our violent nature, horrendous sexual crimes against children, impatience(horrifically high road deaths), alcohol and drug abuse, terribly high murder rates.

    I don’t know if Ubuntu will sort us out, we’ve always had Ubuntu but selfishness has always had the last laugh. Momma Cyndi is right, the way we look at ourselves has to change, and we have to find ways of making our basic goodness become the norm.

  6. suntosh suntosh 30 January 2014

    Thanks for the feedback.

    @Yaj: Debt and capitalism deepens inequality, for sure. What’s the sustainable, realistic alternative – any models we can follow that work nationally in other countries?

    @Momma Cyndi:”What we really need is to stop people being so self focused” – isn’t this the purpose of ubuntu? ‘being a person through other people’

    @Sydney:any suggestions?

  7. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 1 February 2014


    Not really.
    uBuntu is a premise whereby you are part of a collective. If a member of your community has no blanket and you have two blankets, you give one to him. Being self absorbed/focused means that you don’t even see that he is cold and has no blanket.

    One of the problems with problems is that they become overwhelming and we block them out. The first time you see those starving children in Biafra, your heart breaks and you sob uncontrollably …. the 2,987,432 time you see it, your brain doesn’t even recognise them as children. There is only so much pain that you can take before your basic self preservation kicks in and anesthetises you. That sounds so heartless but it is just the way we have to be in order to avoid becoming blubbering blobs of misery.

    SA has so many social problems that we feel too overwhelmed. There is so much that needs changing but so little we can (personally) change. Making it a targeted change to one area would help to make it only one elephant to eat as opposed to a whole herd of elephants to be tackled with one tiny spoon.

  8. Shuffle Shuffle 12 February 2014

    Lovely read. To answer the question, I do not think so. You identify the problems as being structural. The solutions too must be structural. Ubuntu thrived under certain social conditions. If those are not in place it is asking too much for individuals(in their numbers) to bring it back.

  9. Glenda Glenda 27 March 2014

    Ubuntu and human rights, I often get conflicted as to which I look to first and then for what I know is that humanness is about Ubuntu. Before I can know your right to anything else, I know that I need to be there for you as an individual and the rest flows natural from human instincts. Sounds overrated-right! In fact not at all. I grew up in a time like that when my parents’ neighbors knew what I was doing and I was reprimanded without reservation. They were not my parents and yet the care and need to share responsibilities as a community was astounding. I only hope that we can heal our brokenness for care of others because a story of a child dying on the streets where people watch from side walks until he just lays still baffle me.

    It was a story in The Star today and Suntosh, that breaks my heart. A boy came from what is believed to be a toxic dump and he foamed at the mouth-as one witness says, then the other says- he was not moving or anything, ” he sat as though he had been placed there”. And what happened is the boy died as people watched. Now tell me where we can start and the idea is that we do not all feel comfortable to help or assist strangers these days because you never know. I am sick to my stomach on many days hearing that…and I wish for that time when we could stand for us and me and always find comfort knowing that one cares. WE are just complacent and needing to find it in ourselves to make a difference to the cause and really stop whining…

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