In the Ubuntu tribe of South Africa, when someone does something wrong, they take the person to the center of the village.  There the tribe surrounds the individual for two days, while members of the tribe speak all of the good that s/he has done in their lifetime.  The tribe believes each person is good, yet sometimes people make mistakes, which are actually cries for help.  They unite in this ritual to encourage the person to reconnect with his/her true nature.  The belief is that unity and affirmation are more powerful to change behavior than shaming or punishment.

Behavioral science is now substantiating the effectiveness of this approach.

Here are the basic principles of Ubuntu:

  • Practice compassion, forgiveness, mercy, pardon, reconciliation, and grace.
  • Value the life of every human being.
  • Recognize that every individual’s behavior affects every other individual, because we are all united.
  • Place a high premium on dignity, humaneness, and respect.
  • Shift confrontation to mediation.
  • Maintain positive attitudes and shared concerns.
  • Establish harmony and dignity while maintaining fair restitution, rather than retributive justice.
  • Favor reconciliation over estrangement.
  • Promote mutual understanding and learning rather than shaming and punishing.
  • Use face-to-face facilitation for understanding and resolution, rather than debate or victory won by the most powerful.
  • Sustain civil communication and conduct.

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial, President Barack Obama spoke about Ubuntu, saying, “There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small . . . that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”

Most communities and workplaces have not been taught to practice Ubuntu.  What might change in our lives, however,  if you and I began to practice Ubuntu more consciously and deliberately on a daily basis?