The final countdown for the long awaited 2010 FIFA World Cup has begun. Welcome to the many visitors who will be coming to South Africa to enjoy not only the soccer, but a holiday in our wonderful country.
To make your stay more enjoyable, as a communications consultant, I’m going to cover a few areas that could lead to greater understanding and therefore help to build positive relationships. Conversely, South Africans as you await the proud moment when you welcome visitors from afar, be aware of differences, build on them and help to provide lasting positive memories for our guests.
What makes us different?
I’m often asked what makes South Africa unique. There are many factors and I’m going to mention only a few.
Firstly, let’s look at the statistics: we are a nation of over 48 million people of diverse origins, cultures, languages and beliefs. At just over 38-million, Africans are in the majority making up 79.6% of the total population. This category is neither culturally nor linguistically homogenous. Africans include the Nguni people, comprising the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi; the Sotho-Tswana people, comprising the Southern, Northern and Western Sotho (Tswana); the Tsonga; and the Venda.
The white population is estimated at 4.3-million (9.1%), the coloured population at 4.2-million (8.9%) and the Indian/Asian population at just short of 1.2-million (2.5%). The majority of South Africa's Asian population is Indian in origin.
Nine of the country's 11 official languages are African, reflecting a variety of ethnic groupings. The languages you will hear most frequently spoken in South Africa depend on where in the country you are. The most commonly spoken home languages (considering the whole country) according to the more comprehensive statistics of the 2001 census are isiZulu (23.8%), followed by isiXhosa (17.6%), Afrikaans (13.3%), Sepedi (9.4%), Setswana (8.2%) and English (8.2%).
In terms of religious affiliation, about two-thirds of South Africans are Christian, mainly Protestant. They belong to a variety of churches, including many that combine Christian and traditional African beliefs. Many non-Christians support these traditional beliefs. Other significant religions are Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
Cultural diversity provides a great ‘richness’ to our nation. In addition, our country being simultaneously ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ introduces further complexities.
Diversity and contrast are dominant factors. To me, it is perhaps easiest to start by comparing our heterogeneous status with a homogenous ‘melting pot’ where the constituent parts lose their identity. To me, South Africa is a great, big delicious fruit salad. The ingredients absorb some of the flavour of other fruits but are identifiable. They are presented in a way that contributes to a harmonious whole, the bright colourful combination of people known since 1994 as ‘The Rainbow Nation’. That year marked the birth of our ‘new democracy’ which gave greater opportunities to all our people enabling them to ‘shine’. It also accelerated the promotion and cultural developments of commercially desirable cultural symbols such as fashion and music with a very definite African ‘feel’.
Another aspect of South Africa’s uniqueness results from the underlying philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’. This is the foundation on which many of our attitudes, beliefs and ways of doing things is based. Although people will argue that this is confined to our Black population, I disagree. Think of the fruit salad concept! The ingredients all absorb flavour of the other ingredients. I believe that ‘Ubuntu’ is a powerful force influencing all South Africans.
‘Ubuntu’ in simple terms means ‘I am because we are’. It links people and gives us responsibility for each other and goes even further than that. It is a dynamic concept and has been described as ‘humanity in action’. For example, being a good person and caring about your fellow man is not enough. You have to ‘take action’ to bring those links to life. And that action can be as simple as smiling at strangers in a caring, sincere manner.
Although English is commonly accepted as the preferred ‘language of business’ in our country, various aspects may be different to your use of the language.
- Pronunciation and accents vary from province to province. For example, they may range from a British influence in the speech of many who come from Kwazulu-Natal, the province where I live, to the way in which Cape Malays of the Western Cape speak. They use a colourful version of English mixed with Afrikaans.
The variety of accents is also multiplied by the fact that our role models on TV, radio and those speaking in public are more and more often people whose first language is not English. In the ‘old South Africa’, it was accepted that pronunciation considered ‘different’ should be corrected, but that is no longer practised. So, I see an accelerated increase in variety of English pronunciation.
- Words and their use
I like the site www.southafrica.info/travel/advice/saenglish.htm which gives insight into some of the ‘English’ words which are unique to our country. We may also use words which are universal English words in a slightly different way and this can be confusing to foreigners. Let me give you two examples:
When I as an English-speaking South African say:
‘I’ll attend to your query just now’ what I really mean is:
‘I'll attend to your query as soon as I have completed the task I’m busy working on at present’.
Many non-South Africans understand the use of ‘just now’ and my statement as meaning:
‘I’ll attend to your query immediately’.
So, when I continue working on my current task, the non-South African is understandably frustrated as he understood that I’d be attending to his query immediately – and here I am completing another task first! He/she perceives my action as not following through on what I had said I’d do. This could lead to frustration and lack of trust and will impact on understanding and the building of positive relationship. Can he trust me to do what I have said I would do?
I, on the otherhand, am confused by the foreigner’s reaction. I’m doing exactly what I said I’d do – in other words, completing the task and then attending to his query.
Another similar issue arises through the use of the word, ‘might’. As a South African if I say ‘I might go to Durban’, I’m implying the possibility that I may (or may not) go to Durban. I have not yet decided. The word ‘might’ with Australians does not seem to imply a possibility, but rather a hard fact or command. For example, at a weekly assembly at my grandchildren’s school in St Ives, towards the conclusion of the assembly, the person in charge announced: ‘The parents might now leave the hall’.
All the parents (and grandparents) immediately obeyed by leaving the room! The teacher was not conveying an option. It was a command. In South Africa, we would have understood the same words differently. We would consider that leaving the room was an option to be followed through when we wanted to leave.
I have also heard some Australians, as they are about to take action saying, ‘I might put the child in the carseat’. Might? They are telling us what they are about to do. There is no degree of possibility.
Message for visitors and South Africans: As with any communicating, don’t rely only on a person’s words. Try to understand their message from their perspective. Be open to the fact that you may not understand each other even when using the same words.
- Direct answers
When communicating with some groups in South Africa it is not considered polite to get to the point directly. So, to set the scene, it is sometimes a good idea to ask how the person is (and show genuine interest) before getting to the request or question you need to ask.
Similarly, if we as Westerners ask a person how many legs the table has, we often expect an immediate answer of ‘four’. From a rural Zulu you may still get the answer ‘the same number as legs as a cow has’. So watch out for picturesque word pictures and enjoy them rather than getting frustrated that you don’t always get immediate, direct answers.
‘Ubuntu’ (and the interdependence of people) also means that you will often not get an immediate answer or a swift decision. Don’t be surprised if the person whom you presumed to be empowered to make that decision needs to refer that matter to be debated amongst his or her colleagues. ‘Ubuntu’ and our new democracy are contributing factors leading to a participative style of management being the most suitable in many cases.
Message for visitors:
Don’t expect instant decisions. In many circumstances it may take more time than you are accustomed to for the person with whom you are dealing to come back to you with an answer. Practise patience. But ask, ‘when shall I contact you for an answer?’
So, dear visitors don’t expect us to be a homogeneous nation. Accept and celebrate our differences with us. And you will find your visit an enriching experience. We wish you a happy visit to our country. Enjoy the 2010 FIFA World Cup.