Sawubona (Zulu greeting: “I see you are not my enemy”)

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SwaubonaI have been black for as long as I can remember, yet it would seem of late with the introduction of technology, education and westernised worldview, that reality is consistently being challenged. I grew up in Soweto with the values of the struggle being continually reinforced along with those of simply living in community with others. I guess you can call that Ubuntu but that term is undergoing huge fatigue and is progressively losing currency.

One of the key values that drove my upbringing was a message that everyone who is older than you is your father and mother. I guess by in large this spoke to the value of respect and pure manners. It was that if an older person was in the room you’d stand to greet them; if you were in a bus they came through, you’d offer up your seat; it was that you address them by their title or at the very least add a prefix to their name – Bra so and so, or Mr Sibanibani, Ubaba ka Sibanibani (Mr or the father of so and so).
We enter into a new corporate era where it is fast becoming company policy that we should address each other by first names. It is quickly breeding a culture where as young as we are, we are finding ourselves in positions of leadership that by default sometimes mean we have older people below us. How then should we address them?

Therein lies the challenge that even though corporate and educational status implies that I should address them by first names and by titles adequate for subordinates, I still remain an African. I still have an internal value conflict where I should respect an older person, regardless of position. A young black girl who worked for a rather large company and was not sure how to address fellow employees who were older than her highlighted this very crisis of identity for me. She refused to call an older person by their first name and rather referred to everyone as “Bra� so and so. As she was retelling this generational paradox of diversity in the workplace I pressed her further and asked what would happen if the older person happened to be white or of a different race. Her response was simple; in that case she felt she didn’t have to show respect in that way. This raised a red flag in me, is my showing of respect as African attributed mainly to if a person is black or of their expectation of respect?

The challenge remains, being African or living out African values cannot be left up to the people we are giving respect to. The analogy is about a man walking into a lift and feminist lady comes in behind him. The gentleman kindly steps aside and allows this lady to go through. She gets highly offended and raves at this gentleman that she is an individual in her own right and just because she is a woman, it does not mean that she has to now get special treatment. The gentleman responded gently and said, “I let you go in first not because of you, but because of my beliefs�.

We have been raised to respect. If we wait for another party to earn or deserve our respect we may wait forever. My feeling is, as we become more educated, sophisticated if you like, we need to continuously seek to understand before we can be understood to quote Stephen Covey. We need to use our intellect to understand that in a paradoxical world of diversity where no one particular way of respect or doing something is correct, the one that understands needs to act appropriately with wisdom.

Learnt a powerful lesson from the BaTswana people. When you greet someone older than you or someone that you respect, you stretch out both hands, with one hand used to support the other. This communicates respect. Often I find white South Africans don’t understand this, but I maintain that for me to show respect I still support my other hand. I do this in the hope that one-day someone will ask me why and I can explain that I am expressing my respect to him or her. Why all this effort you may ask, because I’m an African…

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2 thoughts on “Sawubona (Zulu greeting: “I see you are not my enemy”)”

  1. Israel says:

    Yes, my brother i agree with you as i was faced with similar challenges when i did my stint in corporate. i must be honest and say that some of the older people also perpertuated the notion of being called by their first names though it made me feel uncomfortable. Maybe they did not want to be put a situation where they had to explain why they were called ‘BRA THEMBA’ instead of ‘STANLEY’ as they are commonly known. Aloiysias i do think that there is a cultural migration that takes place everytime we enter the workplace, people take on new personalities and culture once they clock-in at work however once we leave the workplace ‘their culture’ kicks back in. The rationalisation is that ‘this is work, don’t take it personally’
    Maybe there is a place for a fusion of cultures in the workplace but the workplace’ primary concern is that of productivity.
    Exciting times!!!!

  2. Curtis Towne says:

    Aloysias,

    I found this blog after googling the terms “Zulu, Culture, Greetings”. I did this after hearing the new CEO of The Chrysler Group LLC, Sergio Marchionne (CEO of Fiat) address the employees on the first day of the new company. Mr. Marchionne quoted the Zulu tradition of Ubuntu (forgive me if I mistakenly have the refernce wrong). Mr. Marchionne’s comment was that “our culture is the very essence of success”. He spoke of the striking differences between the typical Western culture and that of the Zulu culture. I believe his message was that our very well being as a successful company depends on the way we recognize each other in this community. I do not do his comments justice. They were very enlightening. I have an audio copy of his speech if you would like. I was not able to attached to the reply. My best wishes.

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