Am I in your foxhole?

 

OR: Understanding South Africans

Every person is to some extent shaped by the culture they are born into. Australia is undergoing a transformation that is welcomed to a greater or lesser extent by those who happened to get here a hundred years before the current crop of immigrants.

South Africans form a large contingent of immigrants and are subjected to the same levels of scrutiny as all other immigrants, and generalisations are made (quite naturally) about them as a group.

The most common criticism I hear about South Africans are that they are ‘abrasive’. That is, they tend to rub people up the wrong way – apparently more so than others. Some even go so far as to say they are more arrogant, not merely abrasive.

As an insider, I thought I may share some cultural context that will hopefully lead to better understanding, greater acceptance and benefit all concerned. (This is usually what happens when there is understanding of where the other person ‘is coming from’, to use the common cliché.)

Annette Franz posted Circle the Wagons and Shoot Inward to make the point that collaboration and cooperation should be the goal and not infighting and politics.

The analogy of the circle of wagons that are drawn into a ‘Lager’ is a quintessential element of the (European) South Africans’ cultural history. The Lager (Laager) is also referred to as a Wagon Fort, and is described as ‘a mobile fortification made of wagons arranged into a circle or other shape and possibly joined with each other, an improvised military camp.

The lager is not unique to the South African Boers as its history possibly dates back to the Roman times, but a whole generation of Afrikaners grew up in that environment as the Boers slowly trekked North from the settlement of the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town) fighting various resident warrior tribes along the way.

That experience (known as the Great Trek) was an especially important, formative influence of the fledgling community of white settlers.

If you want to understand the (largely white) South African immigrant in Australia, then you must understand their culture as it was shaped by that experience. History buffs will recognise that that the wide-spread sanctions during the Apartheid era that was intended to cripple the white political establishment had the unintended consequence of strengthening the resistance and  reinforcing this particular element of that culture by entrenching the belief that it was ‘us vs. them’.

A lager is a response to a common enemy.

The Lager will exist as long as there is an enemy – and only once they are vanquished, does that ‘trek’ continue. Sometimes a Lager may be in formation for weeks on end.

When under siege like that, it takes a lot of cooperation to make that formation work because you’re literally and figuratively only as strong as your weakest link.

The Boers were (still are) a stoic bunch and even when under siege, life went on. Inside that circle of wagons, people would get married, go to church, go to the toilet, play games, cook food and every other activity that is life.

People would argue with each other one moment and fight alongside each other a moment later.

And THAT shaped the South African culture fundamentally.

There IS an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, but that works in your favour if you are on ‘my’ side.

Living like that, meant utter transparency and honesty. Bullshitting was not even a possibility because there was literally no room to hide anything or hide about anything.

The ONLY way to maintain relations was (is) a brutal honesty that most people find uncomfortable.

Out in the real world of corporate politics that translates into a scenario where a South African is typically very ‘free’ with their opinions. They are happy to argue their case with anyone. Sitting around the management table, they will happily express dissent.

But there is an important distinction.

When you leave that meeting, whatever contrary opinion you may have held, becomes a thing of the past. When it is time to go out and face the enemy, you are united in your efforts.

A South African will rarely be heard to use the defence that ‘I don’t agree, but the boss wants me to do X’.

It is no coincidence that the 1910 motto of the Republic of South Africa initially was ‘Ex Unitate Vires’. The current Coat of Arms looks different, and the language of the motto is now written in the language of the Bushmen tribes – but it still translates similarly to: Unity is Strength. (ǃke e: ǀxarra ǁke -- "Diverse People Unite").

A South African is someone you want to go to war with; because no matter what his or her opinion is at any point in time, they are willing to fight for the cause, because ‘together we stand, divided we fall’ is part of their DNA.

Interestingly, Obama said in June 2014 of the Australians, that “Aussies know how to fight and I like having them in a foxhole if we’re in trouble.”

Maybe South Africans and Australians have more in common than they know.


If you really want to understand how weird I am, you can read about Jeremiah’s Curse here.