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A Brief Look At Building Cross-Cultural Harmony

The following is a summary of a panel discussion on building cross-cultural harmony, hosted by Mergon’s Neil Hart at the Ziwani launch on 25 June 2021. His panellists were Afrika Mhlope, Rudi Buys and Champ Thekiso. You can watch the full interview here or listen to the podcast here.


Afrika kicked off the discussion with a definition of the word ‘culture,’ pointing out that it is not enough to define it as ‘a way of life.’ The real question is, “a way of life according to whom?” because the reality is that culture is “started by few but followed by many.” He likened culture to a house – with foundations and furniture. In this analogy, cultural practices are the just furniture, but our main concern should be with the foundations. In other words, “one cannot engage culture without understanding what it is based on; it’s pillars and underpinnings.”

With over 3,000 different tribes and over 5,000 dialects, Afrika pointed out that the cultural diversity which we have been told is a strength is sometimes a hindrance because of the divisions between the cultures, and as such, we now need to find ways of making it a strength. He described the main difference between Western and African cultures being that in the former, “the individual defines society” whereas in the latter, “the society defines the individual,” and said that while there are many strengths of the collectivism inherent in African culture, “whenever it takes away individual initiative and the spirit of entrepreneurship and individual accountability, it becomes an imprisoning force.”

Rudi joined the conversation by pointing out that while it’s easy for us to talk about reconciliation, togetherness and so on, what we can fail to pick up on is that “‘difference’ is equally within groups as it is across groups… and therefore when we talk about diversity and building diverse teams, we’re equally talking about differences within groups, between people that seem to be similar and to share the same cultural heritage.” Given the history of the continent, whether it be colonial or apartheid in the South African context, we are conditioned to lose sight of how much we really share as human beings.

He then touched on the issue of ‘hierarchies,’ saying that culture dictates who is at the “centre” and who is at the “margin.” Those who set and influence culture are at the centre. They are the ones who design the narratives and the sense of identity of who we should be. Meanwhile those at the margins have as their life’s mission to become more like the centre, and as such are never “ok.” They always have to be “more this or that,” – more black, more white, more male, more female. “This hierarchy means that some of us have more power than others, more access to resources than others – and this is a side of culture that we have to deconstruct.”

Champ entered the conversation on the back of a question about how goldy leaders should be thinking about creating Biblical culture in the marketplace. His response was that it all starts with the heart because, “an untransformed heart cannot transform anything, it merely conforms.” However, transformation requires that one faces the brutal realities of one’s own context and condition. And because the Bible says that the heart is deceitful above all things, “if our basic premise is that our hearts are always in the right place, we are actually positioning ourselves to drift without being aware.” His second point with respect to transformation in the marketplace is understanding what breaks your heart, because while there are many problems that need to be solved, you and I cannot solve everything. And to those who might say they are not broken over anything, Champ gave this challenge – “Is that ok?” [In a society as broken as South Africa].

Having been asked by Neil to comment on “inferiority and superiority,” Afrika likened the coming together of the Western and African cultural systems to “two bulls coming together to fight, with the grass suffering as a result.” He pointed out that because the two systems value and prioritise different things, conflict is inevitable. “The Western culture prioritises individualism and materialism, and so by its orientation, what you produce is more important than who you are, in terms of your values and so on. So productivity, time management, and systems are important because the focus is on tasks and goals. By contrast, relationship is what is important in African culture; the capital is relationship – us together. The default therefore of the Western cultural system is superiority.”

His contention is that a person of Western descent has to be “as conscious of addressing superiority as the person of African descent is of addressing idolatry, which is the weakness of African culture. The two don’t self-correct.” His lived experience is that he did not move away from idolatry because he became a Christian; he just became aware of the possibility of freedom but had to consciously lay hold of it and exercise it. He went on to point out that, “superiority feeds on inferiority and inferiority feeds on superiority… both are victims, both are imprisoned, both need liberation,” and that if this does not happen, we might embrace the truth of equality and brotherhood theologically, but not experience it in reality. He concluded by saying that we must appreciate that “culture is a resource, it is not always a negative thing – however,  it must be understood that only God is the source, everything else is a resource. When we turn things on their head and make everything a source – my race as a source of identity, my education as the source of my value – we make God a resource.”

Rudi added that the ‘construction’ of race, the notion that there are different races, is a legacy of the colonial project. “It’s a construction to achieve superiority, to gain power, to have the resources… when in reality it has no meaning in itself.” The question according to Rudi is how we deconstruct that reality because part of the challenge of working with resources is to understand how they really are only that. “Unfortunately for us, if we don’t intentionally reflect on this, we become complicit in its dark side.”

Champ used this opportunity to stress the importance of Ziwani as, “a safe space to talk about these issues and refresh each other as leaders with the truth.” By way of example, he raised the issue of “privilege,” and said how beneficial it would be for Christians of different races to speak openly from the heart about their thoughts, feelings, fears, and hopes on this matter – with the Word of God as an anchor. As a black South African, he can approach the table, “not as a victim, but as a brother acknowledging that I’ve got baggage that I’m carrying and biases that I have – and acknowledging that you are my brother who has baggage.” As a white South African, Rudi [for example] can acknowledge that he has benefitted, and continues to do so from privilege – and thereby ask questions like, “How do I leverage that privilege? What does restitution look like for me as a beneficiary of those privileges? Is there a reparation conversation?” With that done, everyone could then go back to people of their own race as messengers of truth.

Neil then directed the conversation to the question of economic exclusion, to which Afrika responded by saying that in his view, “we need to give the means for people to take care of themselves rather than the dependence on what we have.” He contended for a balance between short- and long-term goals which can be achieved by teaching people “models of success,” while responding to the immediate needs of the poor. Rudi agreed and followed this up with an analogy of a river with a bridge [reconciliation] across it. The problem he observed, is that once peace and a sense of togetherness is achieved on the “bridge,” everyone turns back to their side of the shore – where nothing has changed; “one remains rich while the other remains poor.” His solution, ideologically at least, is that we need to “learn how to build another bridge if you will – down the river to new islands,” [referring to new and genuine expressions of equality and unity]. As an example he said, “as part of selling, if companies would include incubation, then you’re building bridges between the haves and have-nots.”

While Champ agreed with this idea, he pointed out how difficult it is in practice because the damage done by Apartheid “is not just economic – it’s spiritual, psychological, and many other things. Therefore, economic inclusion will not be solved only through economic means, because the damage that has taken place in the minds of those that have been excluded; the feeling of rejection, is more severe than we can imagine.” And beyond the healing that is required, there are still “practical considerations,” such as the fact that “the baseline just to be in the conversation is not there.” As such, Champ suggested that “the amount of time to ‘incubate’ has to be accelerated because there’s a question of livelihood that needs to be answered,” and added that there needs to be “a sense of urgency around our solutions,” as he believes that in South Africa there is “a window of God’s mercy around this issue of economic inclusion.”

With his concluding remarks, Afrika said that he would, “like to see leaders in the marketplace breaking down the dichotomy between the kingdom of God and the world,” and ask questions about how to advance the kingdom in the marketplace. He would like Christians to see themselves as, “missionaries in the marketplace,” not as business leaders who occasionally dip into the kingdom of God. He expressed frustration at the fact that by and large, “the kingdom of God is not something we have bought into, it’s a sideshow – whereas for Christ it was the centre. So I’d like to see us putting the kingdom of God back to its central position, with everything else we do as peripheral.”

Rudi’s closing thoughts centred around the issue of leadership and management. He challenged business leaders to think about what he called “hidden knowledge.” For example, questions like, “Who’s at the table in the meeting? Whose paintings or pictures are on the wall? What is the name of the organisation and the reasons for that name? How do we dress? [because]… there’s a lot in our way of life that says something about our values.” Another consideration in building diverse teams, according to Rudi, is that “we see difference as an asset,” and understand that whenever you do the right thing, there is always a reaction – a “reprisal” of sorts. As such, leaders would do well to seek out those who have, “gained the privileged knowledge of having been a victim of the dark side of culture,” and use them as bridge-builders.

Afrika Mhlophe, Rev. Dr Rudi Buys, Champ Thekiso & Neil Hart

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