After the dismantling of Apartheid in the 90s South Africa had to find a way to establish a democratic and non- racial way of living for its new born “Rainbow- Nation”. The term Rainbow Nation reflects South Africa’s multiculturalism with people originating from different nations and therefore from different cultures. In a culture people share a common understanding of meaning and reason.
Culture has also been defined as ‘A collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another’, (Hofstede, 1984). In South Africa hence was a huge clash of cultures that can be roughly divided into black local people and white offspring of the former colonialists.
‘The spirit of Ubuntu, that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings – is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world’ (Nelson Mandela, 2000).
The Exigency for Ubuntu
Misunderstandings aroused by cultural differences and miscommunication in South Africa led to low productivity and tensions between labour and management. The case of a South African mining company illustrates that. Workers had a dispute with the management and asked them to publicly address them on the issue. The management instead responded via written statements. The workers went on strike that’s has cost the company a lot of money and could have been easily avoided if they would have approached the workers personally. The company has neglected ubuntu, the culture of the workers. A change in management was needed.
Implementation of Ubuntu in Management
Dimensions of Ubuntu
Communication and understanding is a significant factor of ubuntu management since it provides a sense of unity among group members. Meanings of words are strongly related to context. This aspect is related to a high context culture dimension in Hofstede’s theories of cultural dimensions. In other words there is hidden meaning to what is said since, in the Ubuntu poetic expressions and parables are used and the ability to understand and communicate in this manner is a sign of wisdom. This is the opposite of what happens in a low context culture where communication is direct. (SOURCE) Managers from different backgrounds increasingly make an effort to learn the local language. (Karsten, 2005) Ubuntu enhances the communication between management and employees and also avoids conflicts and misunderstandings, producing inventive ways of living together, (Deetz, 2003).
Decision making in the Ubuntu
Ubuntu has an attitude of open conversation and acknowledgement of the voice of all participants in decision- making processes. (Glisby and Holden, 2003) Decision making in the African culture or the Ubuntu is by consensus. It takes a long time before a decision can be made as its important to have all parties satisfied with the decision however their argument is that although Ubuntu might be slow to action, but greater commitment to goal means long term effectiveness and efficiency hence an African culture that is distinctive to Ubuntu.
Age and seniority
In ubuntu old age or grey hair is a sign of wisdom. It is also a belief that age is an ongoing process of maturing and acquiring wisdom. It is believed that older people bring wisdom, connection and informal networks hence competitive advantage. These beliefs are distinct to the African culture. (SOURCE) Employing young managers could cause problems as older workers may refuse to work for a “junior” (Mangaliso, 2001) Western cultures belief in either experience in doing the job or level of education that one has attained.
Productivity and efficiency
In the ubuntu productivity is optimised not maximised as the case may be in other cultures. Rewards are shared and so is suffering as opposed to the individuality context where rewards are given according to individual merit and suffering is viewed as penalty for one’s carelessness. Productivity cannot be reached by labour cuts because employee well-being is a highly valued “output”. Cuts therefore would be unfair to the workforce and results in less productivity. (Mangaliso, 2001).
Conception of time
With awareness of a different conception of time in western and African cultures frustrations in doing cross- cultural business may be avoided. In Ubuntu time is reflected as a “unifying and integrating construct that emphasizes interdependence, shared heritage, regularity, and congruity.” Time connects people with their collective past and shared future.
Sustainable competitive advantage comes from strong loyalty to group goals in the Ubuntu. The Implementation of the belief of a culture, their world-view and way of life reflected in Ubuntu could consequently bring competitive advantages to a company. Companies should be willing to learn from local cultures. It is important to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and a sense of company identity among the employees. If not, companies potentially will face major problems in conducting their business profitably.
Implementation of ubuntu into management
A successful management strategy engages employees in their own worldview. The principles of Ubuntu hence should be implemented in the management style in African cultures. Many foreign and local white- controlled companies must be willing to cooperate with local labour.
The below example explains a programme that was developed by Jane English, A Professor at Cape Town University to implement Ubuntu into a company that was in need for transitional management due to the transitions South Africa has been through after apartheid. “Ubuntu can help organizations to develop corporate citizenship. By building the solidarity spirit of ubuntu it is possible to build cooperation and competitive strategies by allowing teamwork to permeate the whole organization.” (Mbigi and Maree, 1995) The company is a construction company and a representative example for the whole construction industry.
Problems like age in leadership, language barriers, no eye contact while speaking, stressed managers, demotivated labour, gap between floor and top management, unexplained absence of labour and management without practical knowledge were examined together and possible solutions suggested. Then the focus of ubuntu in different African customs was analyzed and the role of the individual and the group in western and African cultures were explained. With every meeting the awareness of Ubuntu was increasing and behavioural patterns modified. The aim was to change the instinctive non verbal behaviours to accommodate the interdependent, highly participatory ubuntu culture without necessarily changing the own culture. Management had to make several personal commitments to be able to implement ubuntu. These include for example learning the local language or use an interpreter to give instructions, greet all workers, show cultural appreciation and learn about the history, values and norms, mind tone of voice, stop shouting and using swear language, be aware of body language and offensive gestures, show respect, appreciate the elder, include workers in decision making and give recognition for work done, acknowledge workers as a team, as for the groups opinion, negotiate, listen and observe.
The success of resolving the problems was analyzed by different groups and changes in the management style evaluated via questionnaires. All in all implementing ubuntu is intended to have a long term effects regarding the work atmosphere and hence the productivity and efficiency of the company’s overall performance. This was proven by higher wages, promotions and fewer dismissals.
Ubuntu thus if implemented right can create competitive advantage and be a justified and a proven management theory