I just landed in La Guardia and got into a taxi heading off to Manhattan. I settled in and gave the driver the details of my hotel. I was surprised – he was one of the few taxi drivers in New York with a New York accent. Imagine that. An ex-firefighter he told me. He leaned back in that taxi driver way and half looking over his shoulder asked me where I am from (out the corner of his mouth the way taxi driver do). “South Africa”, I replied, not really thinking about it. He went quiet for a little bit – no small feat for a New York taxi driver. I could see him frowning at himself – thinking what to say in reply. He leaned back and said, “So where is that?” Huh? “Hum, it is a country in the Southern part of Africa”, I replied – not sure what to actually say. Silence again. I could see his eyes in the review mirror and it was clear he had no idea where to go with this conversation. He looked at me in the review mirror and said, “So, who’s the President of Africa?” WTF? How do I answer that one? “Well. Hum”, was all I could initially think of saying. Silence from my side trying to figure out an answer. Do I ask if he has ever heard of Nelson Mandela? Do I explain Africa is a continent and not a country? Do I say South Africa is the name of a country? No wait – I got it. I looked at him and said, “Robert Mugabe”.
I mean really. What was I going to say?
I am from Africa. Here’s the problem with that. If I said I am from America what would you think? US of A right? There is only one America in the eyes of the world. When people talk about America they don’t mean the continent, they mean the country. But in Africa we have the opposite problem. People think Africa is just some uniform place somewhere off the coast of Australia or England. Yeah, many people think we are just a single entity with people who are all the same no matter where you go.
You can find Italian Americans in the USA and French Canadians in Canada, but there is no such thing as an Italian African or French African. Except if they got lost in the Dakar Rally somehow. No. To the world we are just Africans in Africa. All the same. A uniform country where we all speak Swahili or some or other version of clicking noises. (The God’s must be Crazy is seen as a hard hitting documentary!)
I wish we were this uniform. It would make things a bit easier. I mean really. In South Africa we have 11 official languages. And it doesn’t mean that if you knew one that you would know the other. Nope. It’s like Spanish and English – completely foreign to each other. Oh, we have some words we share – lekker and bakkie being a few we share in South Africa. Some more can be found at A-Broader View. Can you imagine 11 official languages? But we do have something in common. We are South African. And fiercely proud of it. Like all other countries we believe that our country is the greatest on this earth. A blessing from God. And we use our own criteria – like all other countries. The US measures it in wealth and the “American dream”. The German on their efficiency. The Brits on fish and chips, and warm beers. We measure ours on our past that we have overcome. That ours are the most just of societies. Where people from all backgrounds, ethnic groups, sexual orientation and religions can hang out together and have fun. Yes our great spirit is never better seen than when we are having a party. Which is most of the time. Oh, and don’t forget that we are the world champions in rugby, ranked number one in cricket for One Day Internationals and a string of players in the Top 20 in golf – and guess who will host the 2010 Soccer World Cup? Yeah! South Africa – the greatest nation in the world! (According to South Africans and a few of the most informed and wisest citizens of other countries.)
You know why Africans always smile and wave at each other? Because we are to sh*t scared of opening our mouths and having to speak to the other person. Which language do we pick? We have over 2,000 languages in Africa. So it makes it a bit difficult to pick one. Okay, we have the colonialist to thank for giving us English and French – most of us can speak one of the two. Badly, yes. But we can somehow communicate with each other. And a beer always helps to make the understanding a bit easier.
Here’s my other problem with people thinking of Africa as a country. I was on NewsBusters to “engage” them. If that’s what you want to call it… Well. Not everyone appreciated my superior wit and intelligence. (Hah – stop laughing!) What I found odd was that they always started talking about Africa and how bad it was – full or wars, Marxists, failed states, poverty etc. Well, they only did this when I pointed out flaws in some of their arguments – such as Obama not being Muslim or President Bush was maybe not a war hero. And then they got even more pissed when I started talking about Africa.
You see, Africa has many failed states. But we also have many good ones. Zambia, for instance, is more Swiss than the Swiss themselves. Yes, Zambia is as poor as you can get. Nothing there but some copper and poverty. They don’t even have a sea – they are landlocked. But Zambia has the friendliest people in the world Never been in a war – inside or outside their borders. And Botswana has been a fast growing economy for as long as I can remember. And Mozambique is growing at an enormous rate since the end of the war and offer so much in tourism. And Senegal has one of the greatest Presidents of Africa and the world – Wade. And…
Yes. There is a Zambia for every Zimbabwe. A Senegal for every Sudan. For every Equatorial Guinea an Egypt. A Botswana for Burundi. We are as diverse as the 52 independent states (60 if you include the territories) in Africa. As different as our languages. As straight or as crooked as our borders. We are black, brown, grey, white, pink, yellow – and any other shade you can think of. We are a crazy bunch who don’t get borders but will defend it to the death. We are mad, sometimes bad, too often sad, but always glad. We might not be a country. But we are Africans. And proud of it. Robert Mugabe or not.
So what does this mean for companies?
In many places in Africa, people are starting to complain that Chinese companies are exploiting them and not respecting their culture and history. But don’t think that this just occurs in the developing world or in emerging markets. Remember the US stopping a certain Middle East company investing in the ports in the US a few months ago? This is one of the key challenges facing companies in a globalized world. How do you become local and global while expanding your market?
Are you a multinational or a US/UK/Chinese (fill in whatever country might be disliked in the marketplace) company that operates globally? Too often companies claim to be multinational, but they are driven by the culture of their origin. Very, very few companies are actually MULTInational in the way they operate and are managed. To become multinational they need to ensure that both the ‘numbers’ and the people make sense. It is fine to say that 90% of the people in their African/Asian/etc. offices are from the host country, but this still leaves two questions: (1) the 10% left – are they mostly senior management, and how senior are they? (2) Is the head office comprised of mainly western (mostly white males) or do they reflect where they operate?
How do you bring these cultural influences together to make your company truly MULTInational? It may require melding the Western model, which is largely focused on the individual with say an African or Confucianism culture of East Asia. What is the best way to manage the company, and interact with employees, communities and customers? At the moment, companies are not asking these questions as they think ‘diversity’ is a numbers game about ethnicity and not the way you do business. Until we start seeing ourselves as global AND local in the way we run our business, the idea of being a Chinese company, an American company, or an Arab company will continue to divide businesses and customers.
At least in Africa you will have the chance to speak any language you want and no one will understand you in any case…