Afrocentric Business in Southern Africa
Article by Wayne Visser
In the dizzy wake of socio-political euphoria following the birth of its new ‘rainbow nation’, South Africa now faces the sobering task of creating an accompanying economic miracle. The prevailing mood is pessimistic, with many business and economics critics all too ready to point out the grim facts: In 1996, South Africa saw a dramatic weakening of its currency, a lower-than-expected growth in Gross Domestic Product of around 3 percent, a steady trickle of the emigration ‘brain drain’ of its professional skills, and an unwillingness of foreign investors to commit their resources in a crime-anxious climate with relatively high labour costs and low productivity.
But while many shiver beneath the shadow of these ominous storm clouds, a visionary core of business thinkers and practitioners in Southern Africa has their eyes on the rainbow. They see the “failure” of most African economies in terms of a neglect of their peoples to foster home-grown indigenous business cultures that are in harmony with the African soil and soul. And they are working hard to rekindle native values in business contexts, to provide the sparks needed to transform the economy into a blazing sun of new traditions in Afrocentric management.
Values – Colonial Hangovers and Ubuntu
Colonialism is a process whereby one dominant set of values gets imposed on the diverse cultures of ‘conquered lands’. This has been the thread of the world’s political history and is now being repeated in the economic sphere through globalisation of corporations and trade. South Africa, which was invaded by Dutch burghers in 1652 and English settlers in 1820, became industrialised with a pervasive Eurocentric mode of commerce, and more recently has begun to internalize the seductive consumerist culture of America as well. Add to this the legacy of economic marginalisation of the majority of native South Africans through the apartheid system, and it is unsurprising that traditional African ideas about trade and business have to date been totally ignored (note the root word ‘ignorance’).
The values inculcation that has accompanied the North Western hemisphere’s footprint on Southern Africa has left many of its people culturally schizophrenic. Some of these conflicts between African and North Western culture that manifest in a business context are, for example:
- Social harmony and cohesion versus individual performance and reward;
- Participative decision making versus bureaucratic managerial authority; and
- Creative expression and motivation versus rationality and quantitative argumentation.
Underlying these dynamics is a value concept fundamental to African culture that has been largely overlooked by outsiders and hardly explicitly acknowledged by Africans themselves until recently. This is the concept of ubuntu, or African Humanism. In South African culture, it is often associated with the proverb: Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu, which literally means, “A person becomes human through other people.”
South African manager Reuel Khoza describes ubuntu as the philosophy of “I am because you are, you are because we are.” It is a concept, he says, “which brings to the fore images of supportiveness, cooperation, and solidarity, that is, communalism.” Zimbabwean businessman …
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Cite this article
Visser, W. (1997) Afrocentric Business in Southern Africa. World Business Academy Perspectives, Volume 11 No. 3, September.