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Ubuntu means to SAA what 'putting people first' meant to BA
"Change The innovative leader expects it, fosters it, plans it, directs it, and uses it for competitive advantage."
Dr Susan Wolmarans is senior manager, human resources at SAA.
The ubuntu service philosophy was implemented in 1994 as the driving force behind South African Airways' service.
At least we are proud to be South African! The philosophy has, however, created some confusion in the minds of especially the 'paler' part of our employees. What is this new philosophy? Does it mean that I need to sacrifice my own culture in favour of the predominantly African culture?
One can understand that in the face of the uncertainty created by affirmative action, people might be hesitant or cautious to embrace such an approach without reservation.
The South African society has been characterised by an 'us and them' divide that negates the common human needs of people, irrespective of their colour, creed or gender. Should you disagree with this statement, just administer the following 'test' to yourself and some of the people you regard as 'them' and compare notes:
would you like to be treated with dignity and unconditional respect and feel that others care about you?
do you have a need to be understood, supported and acknowledged by people?
would you rather work in a hostile, adversarial environment or do you prefer colleagues who are sensitive to each others' needs and cooperate, share and work together as a team?
is it important to you to feel appreciated, wanted and valuable, surrounded by people who are kind, gentle and considerate? would you prefer people to work together for the common good rather than towards their own (selfish) objectives?
do you prefer approaching your daily task as an unavoidable curse or would you rather view it as an exciting opportunity for personal growth where you are committed, involved and can innovate and change things that hamper harmonious work processes?
what is more desirable: suspicion and hidden agendas or trust, openness and transparency?
would you rather share some of your material possessions voluntarily or run the risk of being mugged, maimed or killed by hungry, angry mobs?
do you prefer to be involved and have a say in the way the company does business and treat people or just having to accept what happens and criticise afterwards?
should decisions be rationally justified or made in favour of people in positions of power?
if somebody achieves the highest honours, should he/she claim all the credit for him/herself or share the recognition with the team?
What then is ubuntu? Ubuntu is the main pillar of traditional African values which bonded people together in difficult times. It centres around love, gentleness, sharing and caring for each other. 'Humaneness' or being human 'in relation to other human beings' is synonymous with ubuntu. In the words of Prof. E D Prinsloo of the Department of Philosophy at UNISA ubuntu is "a refined way of dealing with others, listening, accommodating and respecting people ... to make civilised sense of human relations." It is sometimes easier to define a concept in terms of what it is not than in terms of what it is. Ubuntu does not support hierarchical, power based, autocratic company relations where the left hand is unaware of what the right hand is doing and dare not find out.
Neither is it the gravy train where everybody looks after himself and tries to get as much out of the system as possible for personal gain.
In order to try and define the concept further, let's look at a few classical questions.
Is ubuntu not just 'the flavour of the month?" Ubuntu is nothing new. Examples of how strongly people feel about ubuntu values are numerous.
The French Revolution was amongst those partly fuelled by the need for ubuntu. 'Freedom, equality and brotherhood' which inspired the revolutionaries, are at the core of the ubuntu philosophy.
The miracle of the South African elections in 1994 happened as a result of the fact that the two most prominent leaders, President Mandela and Vice president De Klerk, shared most of the ubuntu values, the latter's sacrificing his position of power for the common good was indeed a prime example of unselfishness, sharing and a live and let live attitude.
Is ubuntu restricted to indigenous black people? Urbanisation and the accumulation of wealth and material possessions have their advantages but unfortunately robbed South Africans to a large extent of their warmth, hospitality and genuine interest in each other as human beings.
The world-wide acclaimed 'country hospitality' ('boeregasvryheid') that is still cherished by visitors to South Africa, runs the risk of becoming extinct unless we revive it and capitalise on this uniquely South African quality.
By the same token we also need to restore the ubuntu that gave dignity to our indigenous African society.
Have you ever wondered why some of the people with the least material possessions are sometimes also the most cheerful? The answer is they have ubuntu.
Being part of the ubuntu culture means that you are never lonely, seldom experience selfdoubt and are guaranteed the unconditional support of an extended group of friends, no matter what happens to you.
Can ubuntu be meshed with our company values? Looking at the publicly stated SAA values of pride in performance, customer orientation, employee care, corporate citizenship, integrity, safety, innovation and teamwork, it is obvious that they can all be meshed with the ubuntu philosophy.
A spirit of sharing, love and kindness should eventually become part and parcel of our organisational ethos!
Will ubuntu force me to sacrifice my culture? Culture is localised being part of a particular group of people who have a clear set of rules about 'the way we do things around here.' The 'ingroup' may be very intolerant or critical towards the 'outgroup' resulting in insulting remarks such as "whites are not people" or "blacks destroy everything."
The beauty of ubuntu is that although it recognises the uniqueness of cultures, it spans cultures, binding people of different cultures with similar values. Although we may not always realise it, there is already a uniquely South Africa way of doing things which is continuously reinforced by our communication media.
Should we all consider adopting people centred ubuntu values, this indigenous culture can be further cemented.
Are Christian values and ubuntu reconcilable? Due to the fact that Christianity was often associated with paternalistic colonialism, many indigenous South African people rejected Christianity.
They associated Christianity with being robbed of their land, selfesteem and humanity. However, according to Joe Ndaba of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Zululand, "the unadulterated pure Word of God is nothing different to European or African humanism. It is the cultural interpretation that has clouded it."
Mr Ndaba is of the opinion that ubuntu is not peculiar to black people and that South African whites tend to underestimate the presence of ubuntu in themselves.
He regards ubuntu as "the sum total of all moral human values" and sees the mutual social responsibility concept also as part of European humanism. "The biggest challenge today is to contextualise ubuntu in a global village."
Is there any place for recognition and individual achievement in the ubuntu philosophy? Traditional African society always had heroes. The Kenyan athletes and traditional African kings and princes are prime examples of individual performance in an ubuntu context. The sovereignty of the king will, however, only stay intact as long as he practices ubuntu.
This means per implication that achievement is not at the expense of others. If a man becomes autocratic/ despotic, his supporters might move to another leader.
The current Miss South Africa represents modest ubuntu achievement in practice as she regards her achievement as an honour for the people she represents. "By appreciating the greatness in others, the person reflects the greatness in him/herself," according to Peter Raboroko of the ANC.
Individuality is not negated but should not take precedence over the common interest. (So much for company politics!)
Is ubuntu only a philosophy or a way of life?
Ubuntu is reflected in people's actions, in the way we treat others as well as in good deeds of neighbourliness. A true ubuntu practitioner wants less for him/herself and more for others.
This way of life is usually learned at home in the nucleus family or the primary group. One's values determine one's goals. Do unto others what you wish for yourself. If you value freedom, allow others their freedom.
What about setting limits and discipline? Consensus and reconciliation are highly valued but setting limits and retribution are also practised by ubuntu followers. People know in no uncertain terms what is acceptable and what is not.
The community decides how to punish transgressors. Due to the yearning for justice this punishment might in many instances be more severe than what for instance a manager would have considered.
Implementing ubuntu does therefore not mean lowering or disregarding standards. The only prerequisite is that the standards and punishment should be mutually agreed upon.
What are the implications of ubuntu for the way we manage in South Africa? Ubuntu is based on democratic principles of inclusivity, consultation and participative decision making taking control of your own destiny.
This, in turn, implies empowerment and the decentralisation of authority. The joint problem solving of communities is replicated in the work place, getting everybody involved in the identification of problems and the proposal of solutions.
'Learned helplessness' is replaced by the realisation that people at grassroots level can be masters of their own destiny. "Selfawareness and selfesteem improve as people's initiatives are rewarded with positive changes," says Prof. Frik de Beer of Unisa.
By practising ubuntu principles, people start to realise their interrelatedness (systems theory) and that 'unity' is in fact 'strength.' The company starts to function as a family, "sharing in the pleasures of profits and the disappointments of loss," Sydney Rantloane of the Consumer Council feels.
Alienation and exploitation are replaced by joint ownership and shared responsibility and become the key to higher productivity.
It is important to remember that traditional ubuntu communities share everything even life and death. Responsibilities were learned at a young age by being part of the family business, e.g. looking after livestock.
We need to be sensitive to the fact that rural people can be intimidated by an office environment reflecting cold, calculated, business success! We need to comfort people with the warmth and understanding of ubuntu, Mr Rantloane says.
What are the obstacles in the way of internalising ubuntu values? Our selfishness, rugged individualism and egoistic conceptions of our own greatness and importance may stand in the way of accepting ubuntu values.
In a competitive society where individual performance is rewarded, people see themselves as islands, finding it hard to give credit to the team. Our greed and materialism might be in conflict with principles such as team rewards and gain sharing where everybody gets an equal 'share in the pie.'
We have lately experienced a growing community consciousness in South Africa as a result of the raising of levels of unemployment and the RDP strategies. Maybe the statement that "poverty is the wealth of nations poverty is richness" is indeed true.
It might eventually bring about an equilibrium between traditional humanistic values and materialistic Western business values.
A positive spinoff could in the end also be a healthy balance between bottomline and people orientation in companies. Restoring this balance might prove to be the true contribution of ubuntu to current management practices.
How should we go about facilitating a common ubuntu business culture? It is essential to take an interest in other people's cultures in order to discover both the unique characteristics and common factors of different cultures. Jabu Sindane of the HSRC suggests the following 'medicine' for nation building which also applies to the business environment:
adopt a common, people centred value system,
incorporate 'them' in your 'we,'
portray all the subcultures in a positive way by making 16 December a 'rainbow culture' day of art, music and public debate,
get to know people at individual and family level by inviting each other to significant events stop saying "I don't think they will like it," and
appreciate people for their unique contributions and, in the process, restore their selfrespect and dignity.
In conclusion, we need to find a balance between traditional people centred values and hard-nosed Western business practices. Colonialism has undoubtedly caused a lot of suffering but, on the positive side, "colonialism has awoken Africa from her sleep," suggests Joe Ndaba.
Prof Prinsloo of Unisa adds: "We are looking for a new world spirit. People who entertain the same beliefs about human dignity should join hands to make the world a better place." The world views of Africans have made social coherence possible. It might create a new consciousness of our interdependence, living in a world with others.
Ubuntu could become an all encompassing philosophy for the 'rainbow people' of South Africa that the world might like to emulate! In the end it is "cooperation, sharing and charity that distinguishes human beings from animals," Prof Joe Telfoe of the University of the North suggests.
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