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I have seen variations on the following meme posted by many of my friends on Facebook:

https://me.me/i/ubuntu-in-certain-regions-of-south-africa-when-someone-does-4931579

In certain regions of South Africa, when someone does something wrong, he is taken to the center of the village and surrounded by his tribe for two days while they speak of all the good he has done. They believe each person is good, yet sometimes we make mistakes, which is really a cry for help. They unite in this ritual to encourage the person to reconnect with his true nature. The belief is that unity and affirmation have more power to change behavior than shame and punishment. This is known as Ubuntu — humanity towards others.

All of the memes share the same story: Some tribes in South Africa have the tradition of dealing with wrong-doing by putting the wrong-doer in the center of town for two days, while the people of the town remind that person of how they have been good in the past, reminding them of their true nature. Then they are reintegrated into the tribe.

According to

https://jmcsmith.co.uk/2012/12/06/maasai-bemba-african-the-same/

this is claimed to be a first hand observation by the author in following book in the book Contact: The First Four Minutes, by psychiatrist Leonard Zunin.

Aside from this one account, I have been unable to find documentation of this practice anywhere online. Is this a real cultural practice of some tribes in South Africa?

  • 2
    While the ubuntu philosophy is a thing, I really doubt it would be practiced by those tribes. It is a fairly recent phenomena and a as far as I understand a distinctively urban one. – T. Sar Jul 23 at 1:47
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    This is incredibly difficult to believe. In a tribe of ~200 people, if people do something "wrong" just once per year, the tribe will have no time to do anything besides give each other compliments. That's setting aside the difficulty of formalizing what is "right" and "wrong" across an entire culture. At the very least, this seems to be a massive overstatement of the supposed "ubuntu" mindset. – Dubukay Jul 23 at 4:06
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    That makes it sound like we are so primitive here in SA. @T Sar has it right. – Jerome Viveiros Jul 23 at 6:03
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    This looks to me like a perpetuation of the "noble savage" trope. – PC Luddite Jul 23 at 13:51
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    Anyone answering this question should keep in mind that the book apparently containing this claim is not a recent book: it was first published in 1972. This means that any information in that book is about 50 years old, and possibly even older. – Schmuddi Jul 24 at 17:09
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The story in question was originally attributed not to an anthropologist, but to a childhood memory!

Consider the Babemba tribes of southern Africa, where the social structure includes only an elementary criminal code. Apparently, the lack of fixed rules to enforce justice stems from close community living, which never made such laws necessary. Brian Sharpe, our red-bearded friend, and director of the William Roper Hull Progressive Education Center, Calgary, Canada, was reared by the Babemba for the first nine years of his life. He passed the following information on to us, along with the tribal method of handling antisocial, delinquent, or criminal behavior, which were exceedingly infrequent.

When a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly [...] The person in the center, we can only suppose, experiences a variety of feelings about his misdeed, having been flooded with the charitable warmth of his acquaintances, friends and loved ones. Perhaps this overwhelming positive bombardment not only strengthens his positive self-image, but also helps him choose to live up to the "expectations" of his tribe.

Leonard and Natalie Zunin, Contact: The First Four Minutes. Ballantine Books, 1979. Emphasis added.

One interesting aspect of this story is that the tribe in question is called the Bemba tribe, not the "Babemba tribe." Babemba means "the people of the Bemba tribe." I searched throughout ethnographic accounts of the Bemba tribe available in my university library but could find no discussion of such a practice other than references to the book Contact: The First Four Minutes.

Who was Brian Sharpe and where did he grow up? A marriage announcement in the Calgary Herald of September 14, 1968 states that Francis Noel Brian Sharpe's father "Noe [sic] Sharpe" immigrated from Salisbury, Rhodesia. This is likely the Noel Sharpe who is said in the Geological Society of Zimbabwe newsletter to have worked for a firm named "Mineral Search of Africa"; a 2004 article "Emerald mineralization in the Kafubu area, Zambia" shows that firm was mining there "in the 1940s and 50s," which matches the dates when Brian Sharpe was in college writing a 1963 thesis on social work. This evidence suggests a childhood spent near a copper mine in rural Zambia, home to a people called the Lamba, who speak the Bemba language.

An article about the 21st century Lamba people states that disobedient children are sent to live with an elder:

Naughty children or children not conforming to the norms at an expected stage are taught alone in a particular context by a person in the community perceived to have the skills of coping with such behaviour. This teacher could be an uncle, aunt or another relative. After all, the Lambas argue they are all related. The child is then sent for a period of time to live with him/her so as to learn from them.

Kalenga, Rosemary C., Vitallis Chikoko, and Fumane Khanare. "Leadership practices among the Lamba people of Zambia: some implications for school leadership." Indilinga African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems 12.2 (2013): 231-241.

Could Sharpe have misremembered some other practice, or was he raised by another Bemba-speaking tribe? (Why did he refer to the tribe as "Babemba" instead of Bemba or Lamba?) To answer this, I emailed a Bemba tribe member: Dr. Richard Mukuka, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Here is his reply:

There are two references to "Bemba". First, the Bemba ethnic group which (according to the 2010 population census of Zambia) constitutes 21% of the Zambian population. Second, the Bemba-speaking people who (according to the same census) constitute 33.5% of the Zambian population. There are 73 ethnic groups in Zambia. I'm a native of the Bemba ethnic group.

A person who acts irresponsibly or unjustly (for the Bemba ethnic group) is only rebuked and corrected by his/her seniors who have the moral duty to "parent" and morally align the wrongdoer. Depending on the the social position of the wrongdoer, the seniors can be varied. The juniors and minors cannot correct their senior. If juniors notice a wrongdoing of their senior, they will recruit the help of someone senior to the wrongdoer: senior community members, village head persons, or the king in council. The practice you've described is not practiced by the Bemba people or any Bemba-speaking people I know.

With kind regards,

Richard Mukuka

I hope this resolves the question to your satisfaction.

You can read more about actual ubuntu practices of the baBemba in this article by Dr. Mukuka, available for free on JSTOR:

Mukuka, Richard. “Ubuntu in S. M. Kapwepwe's ‘Shalapo Canicandala’: Insights for Afrocentric Psychology.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 44, no. 2, 2013, pp. 137–157.

  • 1
    Brilliant answer! Now I wonder if the praise for wrongdoers that the author half/mis-remembered witnessing might have been a misunderstanding of people pointedly "damning with faint praise" wrongdoing social seniors they aren't allowed to directly criticise. "Uncle, you've gone a day without stealing, that's great! And that cape you're wearing that you didn't steal looks good on you. We know you earned it through really honest work" – user568458 Jul 29 at 13:19
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Short answer: This is most likely nonsense. Ubuntu roughly denotes "a quality that includes the essential human virtues: compassion and humanity"(1), and while it is sometimes opposed to victimisation of perpetrators (2), it is unlikely that any contemporary customary law system of any traditional community in South Africa operates without a mix of restorative AND retributive components (3), nor that any contemporary community-held norms dedicates such lengths of time to reify and/or inculcate this principle. In the (extreme) hypothetical case of, say, murder, the criminal code of the country ensures that a person is arrested, charged, and brought to trial, regardless of tribal background or normative community.

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy

(2) https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/08a6/37fac83da4cc1422ea987011b8ddb4b1eadb.pdf

(3) https://journals.co.za/content/ismono/2005/111/EJC48656

Below, I tease out a few of more things, including trying to show just how culturally diverse South Africa is, but that, when all is said, this meme is most likely a play on the noble savage trope (as noted above by a kindly commenter).

  1. Africa and South Africa. Africa is a continent of 54 countries (plus 2 disputed, if you're going to ask). One of the countries making up the whole is the Republic of South Africa, a democratic and sovereign state - a country on its own.
  2. The second link contains a (mischievously placed) picture of the Maasai. This is an ethnic group that lives in Africa, but not in South Africa. They live in Kenya and northern Tanzania. About 2 000 kms from the nearest border with South Africa. And two countries over.
  3. There are, many, many tribes in Africa. For starters, many tribes speak dialects of what is considered the same language. Wikipedia suggests there are more than 2 000 languages spoken on the continent (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africa#Languages) but that is a conservative estimate. There are four very distinct families of languages. Consider: I am typing this in English, which is in the Indo-European family of languages (this also includes Spanish, Hindustani, Portuguese, Bengali, Punjabi, Russian, German, French, Marathi, Italian, and Persian, among many others). Again, Africa has four FAMILIES of languages. Massive diversity.
  4. South Africa has 11 national languages. Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans (the last is my native language). Non-official languages (i.e. spoken by significant groups, but not recognised as official) include SiPhuthi, SiHlubi, SiBhaca, SiLala, SiNhlangwini ("IsiZansi"), SiNrebele (SiSumayela), IsiMpondro, Khoekhoegowab, !Orakobab, Xirikobab, N|uuki, !Xunthali, Khwedam, KheLobedu, SePulana, HiPai, SeKutswe, SeṰokwa, SiThonga, SiLaNgomane, SheKgalagari, XiRonga (many of these are so-called "Khoi-San" languages. This term is sometimes seen as inappropriate; caution advised). Here's a link to a dotmap showing where people live, allocated to race and largest languages. https://dotmap.adrianfrith.com/ So there are many languages, suggesting more tribal groupings, in SA.
  5. Admitting this vast cultural diversity, you have to regard South African people as integrated into the global system. People, poor and rural people, own cellphones - if this an acceptable proxy for "modern". See for instance the coverage map of one of the country's cellphone providers https://www.vodacom.co.za/vodacom/coverage-map - where there are people, there is cellphone reception.
  6. Roughly 16 million (of a population of about 58 million) South Africans are "tribal". What does this mean? Well, some life in areas administered by a local king, chief or headman. SA has a dual legal system - a "western" roman-dutch system, and an "traditional" indigenous system. However, both fall under the country's constitution. The latter reigns supreme, and no practice may violate it.
  7. I do not know every culture in SA. It is theoretically possible that such a practice exists. But I would say highly unlikely. If a person commits a crime (i.e. "does something wrong", because we assume they didn't mean "pull a face at a stranger", right?) they are likely to be prosecuted under one of the two legal systems, both of which have retributive principles. I have spent 9 years working for a traditional community (SeTswana-speaking, one of hundreds) in the North West province, and the system of law operated on the same principles of accusations, the presumption of innocence, the presentation of evidence, the council of an outside arbiter, a verdict and the possibility of appeal - measures that must sound familiar to the Western ear.
  8. That does not mean that there are not restorative legal principles present in the public mind. After Apartheid, the state called to life the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission", where a measure of amnesty could be sought by perpetrators of politically motivated crimes during apartheid (1948-1989) if they perpetrators themselves presented full disclosure. Some, however, did not get amnesty - it was not guaranteed. During this time, the idea of Ubuntu (in Nguni languages)/ Botho (in Sotho and related languages) came to international prominence. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00020189808707894?journalCode=cast20
  9. Ubuntu is the idea that people derive their value and meaning from those around them. This is not miles away from Dunne's "no man is an island" or even idioms as "the king is the king by the grace of the people". It comes down to the principle of kindness, often phrased as "I am because we are". See more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy . This includes a famous three line explanation by Nelson Mandela, short version "A traveller would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water, the people would see a stranger and give him food". Kindness and decency, not "ignoring a misdeed". It is thus NOT the principle of Ubuntu at play on the meme to which you link.
  10. The meme in question is thus much more likely to be a form of feelgood nonsense about a fantasy of "pure and unwesternised tribals connected to our true nature", than to a dynamic cultural practice among people who, like you, spend their days working to feed their families, going to school to learn, or caring for their loved ones. "Two days" of praises - nah, only in the dreams of 19th century anthropologists and contemporary viral-seeking posters.
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    Thanks. Your point 10 summarized the suspicions which I had which lead me to post this question. – Steven Gubkin Jul 24 at 14:35
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    Honestly, I don't think that this is a very good answer as it is. You're showing that Africa is not South Africa, and that Africa as well as South Africa are much more heterogeneous than some may think. I can imagine why this is important to you, but all that isn't really addressing the claim. Also, apart from the links that illustrate that a vast number of languages exist on the African continent, nothing you're saying here is backed up by any source, which is not really up to the standards for good answers on skeptics.SE. – Schmuddi Jul 24 at 18:01
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    In my opinion your answer is correct, but doesn't meet the standards of a good answer here. Point 10 is spot on but not backed by any source. Maybe you can improve the answer with quoted info on what Ubuntu is? – Jerome Viveiros Jul 25 at 5:53
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    @JeromeViveiros - I hope this is clearer now? Edits at the top. – RandomForestRanger Jul 25 at 7:22
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    @RandomForestRanger I think that's better. – Jerome Viveiros Jul 25 at 10:02

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