Understanding our differences

Without a shared vision, success is impossible. We simply have to achieve it, despite the special difficulties we face in Africa.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as a shared vision, said US management scientist Peter Senge. Organisations of all shapes and sizes around the world recognise the profound wisdom of these words by developing ‘vision statements’ – which you’ll see hanging in almost every reception area these days. In a business, it may be relatively easy to get together with your colleagues and thrash out a ‘vision statement’ that’s understood – and aspired to – by all. But what about a continent, specifically Africa?

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We have to overcome language barriers and myriad cultural diversities – the mainstream world heritages of Africa, Europe and Asia, and numerous variations thereof – before we even understand one another, never mind build and document a common vision that everyone can identify with. Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, and we often see the slogan ‘Strength in diversity’ used to punt South Africa’s image.

Both contain elements of truth and generate warm feelings of pride, but the sentiments they express make it extremely difficult to build a powerful common vision! What do I mean? Let’s look at some examples, starting with notions of ‘time’, specifically ‘African time’.

“In the European world view, time exists outside man, and has measurable and linear characteristics,” writes Ryzard Kapuscinski, one of the most insightful commentators on African life, in The Shadow of the Sun. “The European feels himself to be time’s slave. To exist, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws. He must heed deadlines, dates and hours. An unresolvable conflict exists between man and time. It always ends with man’s defeat – time annihilates him.

For Africans, time is a much looser concept. It is man who influences time, its shape, course and rhythm. “Time is even something man can create outright. Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is subservient, passive and dependent on man.”

There we have it – two completely opposite views on time!

The individual vs the group
What about the principle of accountability, which seems so difficult for our present government to comprehend and apply?
Kapuscinski again: “Individualism is highly prized in Europe and nowhere more so than in America. In Africa, it is synonymous with unhappiness, with being accursed. African tradition is collectivist”. In many parts of Africa up till a few generations ago, it was impossible to survive alone. Wild animals, disease and hunger all took their toll.

“Only in a harmonious group could Africans face the obstacles thrown up by nature,” writes Kapuscinski. This collectivist heritage, born out of a harsh environment, manifests itself in joint decision-making and joint accountability. The chief is surrounded by a council of elders and never decides anything without consulting them. This is how many black Africans still understand democracy today.

From this deep sense of interdependence flows the commitment to share everything you have with your kinsmen.
Kapuscinski describes a situation in Dar es Salaam where, after independence, the luxurious villa of a minor British colonial official was taken over by a newly appointed Tanzanian official. In no time, the home once occupied by a single Englishman was teeming with relatives rejoicing in their cousin’s newfound wealth.

Land ownership – differing views
We lived in Swaziland for a long time and developed a close friendship with a local Swazi official and his wife and children. They were graduates of a top US university and had worked in the USA for several years. I had many long discussions with him about the concept of land ‘ownership’. He was a landowner himself with title to a suburban home. Despite this, he expressed discomfort with the idea that man could ‘own’ land. He understood the national economic benefits that came from secure land ownership, but for him it went against the grain.

“I can’t explain it,” he said, ”but at a visceral level, I don’t like it. After all, who owns the air, who owns the water, who owns the impala?” This is our managerial challenge, because nothing unlocks the human power to succeed more than a common vision. We need to use all the skill at our disposal to build this vision in our businesses, industries, towns, provinces and country.

Understanding the root causes of some of the differences that exist between our diverse people might just be the key that helps us unlock the ability to do so.

This article was originally published in the 20 June 2014 issue of Farmers Weekly.