In 2014 my wife and I lived in Mpumalanga in a large and almost exclusively black area during my wife’s community service. Basically, the only white people within 20kms lived at the hospital with us. I would like to tell three stories of people we met during our time there, without emotional judgement or charge. This is just what I observed.
At the hospital there was a group of staff who were competent enough to perform their jobs, but they were unbelievably lazy. Instead of doing their jobs, they sat on their phones the whole day, and left their tasks to the other, more motivated staff (black and white). They arrived late for work and left early, often taking 2 hours for lunch instead of the allowed 1. When it came to performance reviews, and their superior raised issue with their performance, they responded with attacking the superior on unrelated issues including racist allegations (which I know well were unfounded – ask if you’d like a laugh), and doing anything possible to divert attention from their appalling work ethic. This also included threatening fellow workers with African magic should they report their poor workplace conduct. This sort of behaviour resulted in many people dying through neglect and malpractice and without any consequence.
A general trend at the hospital (and in the area in general) was also to use a significant portion of one’s salary on a new car. Some of these drivers had had their licences a matter of weeks and had purchased brand new Mercedes, BMW and Audi cars, with monthly payments nearing 50% of their salary.
There were other staff, unlike the first group, who worked a hard, full day. They carried not only their own burden of work but also that of the lazy staff who didn’t care. These staff were motivated to go on courses and apply new skills. They had a deep care for their patients and did what they could to help them to recovery. They even worked overtime, thought it wasn’t required.
This group (much smaller than the first), also seemed wiser with their money. One lady in particular had her drivers licence but had chosen to save instead of buying a car at all. Last year she bought a flat in Pretoria that she never intends living in. She bought it as an investment to rent out and when that is providing more income than the bond repayments, she will buy herself a small car and then a house to live in.
The Middle Ground
There were also many other people who seemed neither particularly abrasive and lazy nor particularly hard working and friendly. They did basically what was required of their jobs, maybe cutting some corners on their required working time, but still eventually got their jobs done.
What I find interesting about our experience last year is that almost everyone in these groups were had so much in common. They were all black, all lived in the same area, most of them born nearby, and all educated at university level. Despite this, their behaviour was worlds apart.
Clearly the difference between these groups is not racial. I would suggest that the difference is cultural. Cultural lines are often along racial lines (in South Africa at least) and so we become accustomed to thinking of race and culture as one, but they really aren’t.
Here are two quick example of why I think the distinction is important:
1) My wife went to a course in a nearby town. Her and her friends from nearby towns (all white) sat together and all the black staff sat together. One might assume it was because of race. The real reason though is that the black staff were inclined to speak siSwati (their home language) and my wife and her friends were inclined to speak English. It seems racial but it’s actually not.
2) If someone who had never worked with black people was to work with the first, lazy group of people I described, they may be tempted to assume that all black people are lazy, rude and abrasive. Clearly that would be a terrible generalisation, and a very different one compared to if they had worked with the hard-working group. The point being that some negative generalisations may be unfairly attributed to race when they could fairly be attributed to a certain culture or work ethic (or a bunch of other stuff).
I think that the great South African debate could be helped a lot by distinguishing between race and culture.