Some cultural and safety perspectives from South Africa

Some cultural and safety perspectives from South Africa

Multiethnic Friends Standing TogetherSouth Africa is a country with a rich cultural diversity you would not find in many (if any) other countries. Our heritage not only includes the notorious racial diversity, but also a much less noticed cultural variety. We have descendants from slaves from eastern countries, descendants from indigenous warrior tribes, descendants from peaceful tribes and descendants from Europe (mostly England, France and the Netherlands, but almost all other countries in the world.)

Apart from the fact the most of the South Africans have English as a second or third (or fourth or fifth) language, methods of communication are completely different. In one culture, speaking softly is a means of showing respect, while shouting at each other over large distances is common. In the same community, another culture considers speaking up as respectful, and shouting as a sign of disrespect. In one culture, the senior person occupies the highest physical position, and respect is shown by sitting or crouching with your head lower than that of the leader. In other cultures, respect is shown by standing up in the presence of the senior person. In some of the cultures, age is considered as one of the most important factors in seniority, meaning the more suitable person will stand back in favour of the oldest person irrespective of the situation. If you put this mix in a meeting where the outcome of a discussion is important, as is the case in many safety discussions, this needs to be managed or the information will not flow in all the directions. Important information may be withheld because the culture may dictate if the person with the information will speak or not.

Put this mixture of cultures, habits, languages and hierarchy in a modern factory and start to manage safety. Firstly, it is difficult to gauge how much the worker understands of the instruction. In some cultures, if you ask them if they understand, they will always say “yes”, since saying “no” is seen as rude. Terms like “as soon as possible” or “immediately” has a different meaning, as do “far” and “near”. There is an interesting philosophy behind this – in certain cultures you would never tell someone that the destination is far, in order that you do not discourage them to continue the journey. This is an artefact of a culture where the emotion behind words is often more important than the cold facts. In a culture like this, using the “rule book” is counterproductive, and the manager needs to tap into the emotions.

I had some instances where I was convinced the worker understood exactly what I meant, until I started asking pointed questions and found that he could not explain what needed to be done, although he could repeat my instructions word for word. The same goes when they wanted to tell me something – I sometimes need a few to-and-fro questions to be clear of what is communicated. Many of the South African languages have a structure that is so different from English that a sentence structure that is logical to us would not make sense. Since sentence structure can easily change the meaning of a concept, this can create confusion – the words make sense, but the sentence does not.

In some of the cultures, asking for help from a person considered senior is absolutely forbidden. No matter how many times they are told to ask, they never will. This is also a sign of respect, so by forcing them to ask for help is like forcing them to be disrespectful. A respectful worker is often worth his weight in gold, so you do not want to force them into a disrespectful situation. I found that often just helping without being asked is the beginning, and sometimes I resigned to the fact that I had to get someone else to provide the assistance.

Swearing is another aspect – sometimes (often) workers from different cultures have different perspectives on what constitutes a swear word. If you do not know this, you can easily perceive someone as rude, while they do not realise they can be considered rude. This goes two ways. I was in a situation where the team of a supervisor who reported to me complained about his rude behaviour. He was astounded – he did not know he was rude. It turned out that a very common saying in one culture was a very rude one in their culture and language.

Apart from the communication issues (which is one of the bigger problems), I know of a situation where the operator of a rural plant could not get his workers to wear their overalls. They continued to pitch up in their oldest clothes. It turned out that their work overalls and safety shoes were their best clothes, and they kept it as Sunday clothes. I had a worker who had one set of white overalls which he used as his “going home” clothes – this set of overalls was kept immaculately clean. I could have used the rule book on him, since he is not supposed to take PPE home, but in the bigger scheme of things, the cost of one pair of overalls (in 2-3 years) was insignificant, so we just accepted it as his “normal”. In a situation like this, where poverty is still prevalent, it is difficult to get workers to dispose of contaminated but seemingly useful items. A chipped glass beaker in a lab will be removed from the broken glass bin, get washed and appear back on the shelves.

There are some wonderful cultural habits to share also. It is very uncommon for people from some cultures to make one feel embarrassed – a lovely habit they have is to apologise if something happens to you – if you spill something, slip, stumble, fall – they will in all likelihood say “sorry”. I cannot remember ever seeing one of them laughing at someone else’s mishaps.

A last one I want to mention (with some hesitation, but it is important to understand) is the concept of a feeling of superiority. In a workforce where, for many years, labourers were considered “lower class” people, arrogance caused managers to believe they needed to think for the workers. If this behaviour is carried on for more than a generation, a situation is created where workers stop thinking, or start thinking destructively. We now have to manage the remnants of this culture, and influence both managers and workers to understand and value all to their true worth.

Wynand Serfontein

Wynand Serfontein

Senior Scientist at Sasol
Wynand Serfontein

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Wynand Serfontein
Senior Scientist at Sasol, although this article reflects personal opinion, and is not endorsed by Sasol in any way. Experience: I am a chemist by training, but have been involved in R&D safety since 2007.

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