I arrived in Cape Town almost two weeks ago and I’m finally starting to feel properly part of my surroundings. It’s been nearly a year since I was last here, the longest I’ve ever been away from home.
I have heard from people in expatriate circles about a phenomenon of reverse culture shock when returning home after living abroad. Well I can tell you that I already had a taste of this on the flight here.
There are certain things that I have recently re-discovered about South Africans that the rest of the world might not know about. After living in Germany for over a year, I have become accustomed to certain social norms. Even though I do not necessarily subscribe to the Western way, I have definitely gotten used to it over these months and my-oh-my was it a (pleasant) surprise re-remembering how different South African culture is.
- South Africans are open
Being ‘open’ means different things to different people but for me it means that there is a degree of familiarity and friendliness between strangers here that you don’t see very often in Europe. For example, people smile at and talk to strangers just because. Their faces are open, indicating that they are willing and eager to engage.
One of the first things I noticed on my flight here was how I could immediately tell as I boarded the plane which passengers were South African because of their broad smiles. This makes you feel so warm and fuzzy inside when you’re feeling tired and irritable from travelling. Not only this, but if you stop and chat to any of them, you will quickly learn a lot about them and find yourself having pretty open conversations about anything and everything within a few minutes. I noticed this quite distinctly when I went to buy a prepaid SIM card on my first day and found myself in a full on discourse with absolutely every person in the store after about 15 minutes.
Now of course, you could say this might have a lot to do with me and my personality. And for sure, you would be right. But I have this same personality in Berlin and I can tell you that if this happened to me in a Berlin store I would literally die of shock. You are lucky to get a “hallo” from a sales assistant let alone engage in conversation with the other customers.
It was such a beautiful moment that was made even more special by the fact that in the store were people from different races, who spoke different languages and came from different walks of life. If you know anything about South Africa’s past, you will understand why this is something that warms my heart. And this was just day one!
- South Africans are warm
Apart from the hot African sun that shines so bright in this part of the world, I have always found that the people of South Africa are a particularly warm bunch. We are welcoming and take hospitality very seriously. We want visitors to feel at home and will go out of our way to make their stay memorable. It’s like we’ve all been trained by some kind of hotel or holiday resort! But really it’s just in our nature. After 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president, South Africans have taken on the responsibilities of nation building quite seriously. We had a lot to be proud of and felt really excited to be part of the world again. But I think despite all this ‘branding’, we really are a warm people. We are kind and generous. And even those who don’t have much tend to be this way.
- South Africans are human
For the first few days I was here, I asked myself whether it was normal that strangers talk to one another like this. Having lived in Europe I felt slightly embarrassed by how easily people opened up to me and in the back of my mind I kept on wondering if South Africans are just a bunch of over-sharers or something? Do we lack boundaries? And should we learn to keep our opinions to ourselves more? I have since come to realise that this openness and warmth as described above is actually very human. The fact that people see other people as equals and therefore worthy for conversation demonstrates how even in this country where there are radical social problems, there is something that unites us all. And no matter which walk of life you come from, we all share this common humanity.
- South Africans understand Ubuntu
So what is it that unites us in our common humanity? What makes it possible for people in this country, despite our differences, to get along and find commonality with those around us? South Africa is an incredibly diverse nation. We have eleven official languages and have many different cultures that are given total freedom of expression here. We also have severe social problems. We are still fighting against the consequences of Apartheid, which has caused long-lasting effects in terms of economic empowerment along racial lines.
In other words, twenty years after Mandela was elected, the majority of black people are still poor and uneducated while the white people are still predominantly wealthy and educated. There is also racial tension because Apartheid bred hatred between the races and denounced black people’s humanity. These disgusting ideas were made into laws that have since been abolished but there are still stains on the South African collective consciousness.
On top of all of these historically relevant issues, we now have a government that is failing to provide basic services. There is much to be disgruntled with and there are so many reasons why I would except people in this country to be walking around with heavy heads, unable to share a smile with strangers or be kind and warm just because.
In fact, if I think back to my experiences with average Germans on the streets of Berlin, especially in winter, I would imagine that they are in fact the one’s suffering the way South Africans are. But no, Germany is a wealthy and highly organised country. Their systems work and their people are provided for. So why do the people look so miserable? And why is it so hard to find genuine warmth and openness there?
The answer: they do not know about and have not grown up understanding the concept of Ubuntu, roughly translated as “A person is a person through other people”.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote:
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
After coming back, I have been in a few discussions about what this means and how it is communicated. When I asked about the openness and warmth I was experiencing, I was told that the first part of Ubuntu is the acknowledgement of the other. I am me because of you compared to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. By understanding Ubuntu, we acknowledge that there is no individual without the collective and therefore I need you, I need to recognize you, to see you. And you will find this is one of the definitive differences between South Africans and Europeans. We will look you in the eyes, we will engage with you directly. And we do this because we see you and we know we are not separate, that we are in fact all interconnected.
- South Africans practice forgiveness
Many think it is a miracle that we didn’t have a civil war and that Apartheid ended relatively peacefully. Many believe it was through Mandela’s leadership and some say that the system was imploding, they were bankrupt and knew they could not survive much longer. Whatever the case may be, I think it took a miracle that so many people who were so badly treated for so long didn’t turn to violence and hatred when violence and hatred was all they got. Not many countries can boast an ex-leader of Nelson Mandela’s calibre. He was an exemplar of peace and humanity. He showed the world how to behave humanely and despite all the anger and all the suffering, he elevated the South African nation beyond their ugly past and into a new, hopeful future. One of the biggest things he taught was a lesson about forgiveness.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
And even though I am still not convinced that white people should have been forgiven so easily, I do think that these lessons of forgiveness have become internalised into the South African cultural repertoire. I notice it when I speak to people I have never met before and I realise how much less bitter they are than people in Europe who are far better off in some ways. I believe that we probably need to get angrier than we are and perhaps in the next few years we will and there will be a revolution again. But in the meantime I think it’s phenomenal how South Africans walk around these days, carrying on side by side in almost harmony for the most part. We might be too tolerant at times but I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing.